Author Archives: bcorbett907

About bcorbett907

I'm a Calgary-based writer who enjoys exploring the landscapes, and menus, of western U.S./Canada

Cooking Hacks Fit For a Pandemic

Tips for quick meals at home

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.

Chopping everything before you start cooking is a good idea, even for an omelette

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.

Chop, Chop

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.

My two Wustof cutting knives (going on 30 years old) and a razor sharp Japanese blade

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.

A quick tofu stir fry with a cream sauce

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.

Sheet-pan roasting brings out the best in meats and veggies

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.

Blistering Pace

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.

Blistered green beans and grape tomatoes in a cast-iron pan: my new favourite

Double Up

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?

SPUD is no dud for home grocery deliveries

SPUD’s home-delivery produce is fresh, local and mostly organic

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.

At the moment, customers must recycle the big cardboard boxes

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. 

Goodbye Hello Fresh

Dinner in a box from meal-kit company Hello Fresh

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.

The assembled and cooked meals were quite tasty
The packaging alone killed my appetite

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.

Almost every ingredient has its own little packaging

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.

Fickle Pickle Pizza

Favourite Mike’s Big Pickle at Calgary’s Pizza Face

Back in high school, when glaciers were advancing, some friends and I once experimented with bizarre toppings for home-baked pizza. Peanut butter, I recall, was one such ingredient, as were marshmallows, ketchup and mustard.

The results were about as bad as you’d imagine. But I never lost that zest for experimentation or, as a road-food warrior, the impulse to order something original off a menu.

So when I read an article about a Calgary restaurant offering a dill-pickle pizza—and developing a cult-like following for it—I had to give it a try.

Pizza Face has been around a while, as a pop-up establishment in various locations around town. Two months ago, owners Mike Garth and Tony Migliarese opened a more permanent location inside longstanding health food store Community Natural Foods.

Pizza Face is inside Calgary health food store Community Natural Foods

Pizza Face’s eclectic pizza menu ranges from high-end standards such as pepperoni and margherita to “cheeseburger” and specials like black truffles—all served on a blistered, puffy crust fresh from the high-temperature oven.

But it’s the Mike’s Big Pickle (12-inch, $19) that outsells everything else. It features garlic cream, mozzarella, olive oil and fresh dill. Oh, and a whack of sliced dill pickles.

So, how does it taste? A little astringent and certainly crunchy, offsetting the softer, chewier other ingredients. In all, a lot better than I expected. Give it a try.

The dill-pickle pizza was also my introduction to DoorDash delivery. As a rule, I prefer pick up or delivery by the restaurant, eliminating the often high fees charged by large-scale delivery services.

From order to delivery: a slick 30 minutes

But I didn’t feel like driving close to rush hour. And Pizza Face’s delivery service is DoorDash. I must say, the sign up was quick and the pizza delivered to my door (free, plus optional driver tip) in just over 30 minutes.

Pizza Face
1304 10 Avenue SW, Calgary (inside Community Natural Foods)
Monday to Saturday noon-9 pm, Sunday noon-7 pm.
Pick up 587-585-8669

Curbside Sandwiches a Calgary Hit

Curbside pickup a hot business at Calgary’s Alumni Sandwiches

I’d like to describe what it’s like inside Alumni Sandwiches restaurant in central Calgary. I’d like to tell you about the design, the layout and ambience of the place.

But I can’t. That’s because since reopening, from a pandemic closure, in early May, Alumni has only been offering curbside pickup of its fabulous sandwiches.

In other words, you place your order online, by phone or on the sidewalk. When it’s ready, the restaurant door opens and a masked person hands you a little cardboard box or two bearing your sweet treasure.

A bit impersonal, but it’s the food that counts. In my case, that’s Alumni’s famous hot chicken sandwich ($13), the best I’ve yet had in Calgary. It’s a generous amount of crispy, spicy chicken (half heat still had my forehead perspiring) with slaw, “comeback” sauce and pickles, all stuffed inside a brioche bun.

Loads of spicy hot chicken inside a brioche bun

I was lucky to grab a curbside parking spot right in front of the restaurant on busy 17th Avenue S.W. And I wasn’t about to drive home or to a nearby park to devour this puppy.

A hot sandwich is meant to be eaten hot. So it was inhaled, in situ, at the curb, with a single napkin scarcely sufficient for mopping up all the juiciness.

Alumni is about a 15- or 20-minute drive for me, depending on traffic. So I won’t be sampling the rest of the menu—including a rosemary beef dip and a Mexican torta—any time soon.

My masked server talked about tentative plans to reopen the restaurant to indoor customers sometime in October. But with the curbside pickup working so well—half a dozen customers lined up in the few minutes I was eating—there may well be no rush.

Alumni Sandwiches
725 17 Avenue SW, Calgary
Daily 11 am-9 pm except 6 pm closure Sunday
403-455-7255

Patios Perfect Choice for Pandemic Dining and Drinking

Patios like this lovely one at Bitter Sisters Brewery are the way to ease oneself back into on-premises dining

Well, it was long since time I ventured out into the local restaurant scene mid-pandemic, other than to order a modicum of takeout. I still haven’t eaten inside the four walls of a restaurant but feel increasingly comfortable stepping onto an airy patio.

In truth, it all felt pretty normal sitting on a sunny, early-fall patio at Bitter Sisters Brewery, a fairly new craft brewery that recently reopened in southeast Calgary. Yes, there were the ubiquitous hand sanitizer bottles at the entrance, masked servers, regularly scrubbed tables and few indoor diners. But otherwise, it was business as usual on a spacious patio, with about 10 of 16 well-spaced tables occupied by folks enjoying the mid-day heat with some pints and bites.

Things were much quieter indoors

The brewery nicely covers the craft basics: a handful of ales, a rotating sour and a potent, Belgian-yeast saison. Of course, I went for the Second Chance IPA.

But the real revelation was a diverse food menu ranging from a fried burrata starter to a Buddha Bowl salad to a Nashville fried chicken sandwich. Again, I stuck to the middle with an excellent, custom-blend beef burger with an onion ring tucked beneath the brioche bun and a mess of Kennebec fries. A three-napkin job, to be sure.

A hinged jaw helps devour this onion-ringed top burger

Here’s hoping the revived success at Bitter Sisters and other food and drink places in Calgary can be sustained during the long, upcoming winter, when most patios will undoubtedly be shuttered.

Have you started returning to restaurant patios or indoors? If so, any favourites you’re frequenting? Let me know.

Bitter Sisters
510 Heritage Drive SE, Calgary
Opens daily at 11:30 am, except 3 pm Monday
403-287-8811