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9 Reasons Bhutan is worth the price of admission

In 2019 I booked a trip to Bhutan last minute, on a whim, or as some might describe as an impulse purchase. To be perfectly honest, it was a response to a meltdown over a disappointing birthday.

I entered my 30s by celebrating my 30th birthday in Rio de Janeiro during Carnival. I realized a little too late that I wanted something memorable to mark 39 – my last year before the big 4-0.

So, six weeks after my birthday, I found myself with a problem that many people would love to have. I learned that I had too many vacation days that I couldn’t carry forward and I had to come up with a plan to use them.

And then I found a way to burn through some vacation… a discounted G Adventures 10-day Wonders of Bhutan trip leaving in less than a month.

Bhutan is not exactly easy to visit, nor is it economical.  Known as the last Shangi-La, I didn’t see my first images of the small land-locked country in between India and China until I was 24. I added it to my travel wish list, but the price had always deterred me from seriously considering it.

As someone who has grubby backpacked on a budget literally around the world, spending less than $10 (Canadian) per night in hostels, guests houses, and hotels in Asia, South America, Eastern Europe and Africa, Bhutan’s $250 USD daily visa fee had always been a barrier for me. The country limits the number of tourists each year and requires visitors to fly direct from less than a handful of countries – making the international travel arrangements even more difficult.

Bhutan is not a country that allows cheap backpackers hopping from hostel to hostel. All visitors have their visa arranged by a tour company. I’m not one for package holidays, but solo travel doesn’t really exist in Bhutan – you’re expected to be chaperoned by an official guide throughout your stay.

Once I found the deal I had to act quickly to ensure G Adventures could get me a visa. Very quickly, I managed to blow $7,000 Canadian in just a few hours in this order by:

  1. Booking a flight from Kathmandu, Nepal, into Bhutan on Druk Air – Royal Bhutan Airlines
  2. Securing my spot on the G Adventures Wonder’s of Bhutan trip (which included paying their overpriced $400 fee to come an extra day before the trip started).
  3. Booking a flight on Cathay Pacific via Hong Kong to Nepal (the flight home involved a five hour red eye from Kathmandu to Hong Kong, a 12 hour layover in Hong Kong, 11 hour flight to Vancouver, and then a 90 minute flight back to Edmonton).

In comparison – I spent $10,000 Canadian traveling South America over seven months. The price was a hard pill to swallow, but in the end, I didn’t regret spending the money. I had an incredible trip to Bhutan and absolutely resolved my birthday blues. Here are nine reasons why I felt Bhutan was worth the price of admission:

1. TIGER’S NEST MONASTERY

If you have ever heard of Bhutan, you’re likely to know the image of the cliff-defying Tiger’s Nest Monastery. Perched 900 meters above the Paro valley, tour operators leave the climb to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery until your last day of the trip.

Thankfully our guide Kinley got us up early and we started climbing by 6 am. We had the entire route to ourselves, and did not start seeing other tourists until after we had already visited the monastery and were making our return down. The cloud-covered views as we ascended were breathtaking, and having the climb limited to our eight-person group made it even more memorable.

2. MEETING THE KING AND QUEEN OF BHUTAN

When we unloaded from our travel van to begin our hike up to a temple, our guide was approached by men driving matching black SUVs who told him the King was arriving shortly. I wondered if we would still be able to climb, but it didn’t seem to be an issue.  We were invited to stay during the ceremony, but we could not take any photos.

All smiles following our Royal Family encounter

Joining approximately 50 locals, we were asked to line up as the Royal Family walked past into the temple. As they passed, the crown prince pointed at our group and whatever he said made the family laugh. The King went in for a few minutes and when the family exited the temple, the King of Bhutan came straight up to our group and said, my son loves the Green Lantern.

My tour-mate Rick (also originally from Edmonton), was wearing a shirt with the Green Lantern logo that caught the young prince’s attention. What followed were multiple conversations with the King and Queen of Bhutan, as well as the Queen Mother, about where all of us were from, how long we were here, where else our tour went, and how much the prince and his cousins loved the Green Lantern.

Although the royal photographer never posted any pics (for days we all stalked the King of Bhutan’s social media pages), it was certainly a highlight of the trip.

The Bhutanese Royal Family’s ride

3.FORTRESSES, STATUES AND RELIGIOUS STRUCTURES GALORE

From Dzongs to Chortens, from temples to Buddha statues – Bhutan is packed with cultural architecture.

Punakha Dzong

While the Tiger’s Nest Monastery may get most of the glory, awe-inspiring architectural sites are abundant across Bhutan. Dzongs, or fortresses, and their towering exterior walls surrounding a complex of courtyards, temples, administrative offices, and monks’ accommodation were humbling to walk through. An added bonus of my April departure meant the blossoms along the river next to sites like the Punakha Dzong made for stunning scenes.

Great Buddha Dordenma

The Memorial Stupa, also known as the Thimphu Chorten

4. PHALLIC SYMBOLS

I felt like a teenage girl giggling in sex-ed class, but the phallic imagery, statues and décor across Bhutan never failed to bring a smile to my face. The images of ejaculating penises painted on the walls of houses seems a bit of a contradiction for a country that some would argue is closed and conservative.

For sale in the Thimphu National Post Office

The 15th-century arrival of an eccentric Tibetan monk named Drukpa Kunley, or the Divine Madman, seems to be the cause. Throughout our time in Bhutan we heard stories about how he received a white scarf as is the traditional greeting, and promptly put it around his genitals instead. The Divine Madman pledged to rid the people of his conventional ways and seemed to be a free spirit – eating meat and enjoying sexual exploits.

The carved penis hanging from the rear view mirror of our van was said to keep us safe, the propeller shaped penises hanging from houses were said to ward to evil spirits and trash talk from your neighbours. My travel roomie Kalpna and I posed in a fertility garden with four-foot penises.  It was such an unexpected treat and I never got bored with the statues, paintings and imagery.

As a side note, the Divine Madman is also credited with the creation of Bhutan’s national animal. Legend has it the takin was made when The Divine Madman stuck the head of a goat onto the body of a cow. Our guide Kinley added in a visit to a sanctuary to see the awkward mammal outside Thimphu when we asked about the unique mammal.

 

5.CUSTOMIZED BHUTANESE POSTAGE STAMPS

Some of my travel friends mock me for my long-time love affair with Lonely Planet, but reading the side notes has resulted in some pretty fun and random adventures over the years. When I learned that you could make your own postage stamps at the national post office in Thimphu, I couldn’t wait to share the news. Two people on my tour, Kalpna and Rick, arrived a day in advance with me. With an afternoon to explore in Thimphu, I suggested we visit Simply Bhutan, an interactive cultural museum where we could pay extra to wear traditional clothing. Kalpna was game – and together we posed for photos which we used to make personalized stamps that went out on all the postcards I sent. I can’t think of a better souvenir.

6. THE DAILY FEE INCLUDES 3 MEALS, ACCOMMODATION
AND YOUR GUIDE

What I didn’t realize when I learned that Bhutan had a $250 USD daily visa fee, was that it includes accommodation, three meals, and a guide. Bhutan is expensive to get to, but once I paid for my tour, I didn’t spend much money in Bhutan.  I also read that the daily fee reduces for visitors staying longer than one week – which may be why the 10 day tour wasn’t that much more than some of the 5- 7 day tours I saw.

Our G Adventures guide and driver

7. NOT MANY TOURISTS

Bhutan remained closed to foreigners until 1974, and since opening the door, tourism has remained minimal compared to the rest of Asia. The Bhutanese government is aware of the environmental impact tourists have, and restricting tourist activity to sustainable levels made the experience more enjoyable for me once I arrived.

Our 10-day tour included visits to the Gangtey and Haa Valleys – where I don’t recall seeing any other tourists. In 2017, approximately 250,000 tourists visited the country – of those, 71,000 were international tourists. In comparison, the Taj Mahal attracts between 7 – 8 million visitors annually, and 800,000 of those are international tourists.

The only day where it felt ‘touristy’ in Bhutan was the day we visited the Tiger’s Nest Monestary, but as I mentioned above, our guide Kinley had us set off early and we avoided all tourists on our hike up and during our visit of the temple.

The Kingdom is certainly committed to preserving the culture. From the school we visited that teaches traditional arts, to the dance performances with regional dress, to the monk we met who shared how the country measures gross domestic happiness – our trip felt like a time-warp back through a retro issue of National Geographic.

 

8. WATCHING ARCHERY – BHUTAN’S NATIONAL SPORT

I have taken in sporting events during my travels around the world, but I don’t think I have seen anything as unique as an archery tournament in Bhutan.

Getting ready for the opposing team to shoot an arrow towards them (and the target)

Teams, dressed in traditional clothing, compete to hit targets over a distance of 145 meters. The strange part is that the opposing team stands next to the target that is being shot at. Each player has to pay close attention as the risk of getting shot by an arrow is totally plausible. The teams sing and dance, celebrating shots on target, and tease or mock the opposing team on their misses. My anxiety level went up just watching – an archery tournament in Bhutan is quite a spectacle.

9. A PHOTOGRAPHER’S DREAM

Apart from a candid photo I discreetly take, I most often ask permission to take a photo of someone while traveling abroad. Each time I asked, or pointed at my camera to ask permission, the answer in Bhutan was always yes. Whether it was the young girls dressed in traditional clothing departing from school or the people we saw spinning prayer wheels at a temple – I felt invited to capture the incredible images I saw of people experiencing life across Bhutan.

The country is bursting with colours. From the traditionally clothed people going about their day, to the gold-laden Buddhas, to the intricately designed temples, to the valleys draped with prayer flags – Bhutan is a photographer’s dream.

Kila Goempa Nunnery

 

Booking a tour and flying to Bhutan is expensive, and that daily fee is likely a deterrent for many travels, but the limited travel imposed by the Bhutanese Government makes a journey through the Land of the Thunder Dragon feel even more magical. At times, it felt like we had the whole country to ourselves.

For me, Bhutan was certainly worth the price of admission.

* If you fly from Nepal you can get the added bonus of a fabulous view of Mt Everest.

Mt. Everest, Nepal

10 Things I Learned From Chefs Anna & Michael Olson at Jasper CIN

Christmas in November (CIN) at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge (JPL) celebrated 31 years last month, and chefs Anna and Michael Olson have been there for 15 of them.

As a contributor to Alberta Pork’s Passion for Pork initiative, I’ve had the privilege of attending Jasper CIN for the past seven years. I, very excitedly, get to introduce chefs Anna and Michael Olson’s culinary sessions, which have most recently been sponsored by Alberta Pork.

During the 10 day event I watch their sessions daily, and while I watch them teach the same recipes on repeat, I always manage to learn something new. Between Michael’s dad jokes and Anna explaining how the holidays are all about winning, the dynamic duo always share noteworthy culinary tips and tricks that have impacted how I spend time in the kitchen.

Here are ten things I’ve learned from chefs Anna and Michael Olson at Christmas in November at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge:

 

1. HOW TO COOK PORK BELLY PERFECT EVERY TIME

The most influential recipe that Michael Olson introduced me to is his double roasted pork belly. It takes some minor planning to prep the meat the night before, but this double-roasted delight is one of the simplest and most rewarding meat recipes I have in my repertoire.

This recipe makes the best pork crackling imaginable. I can hoover slices of this on its own, but I also really enjoy it with an Asian dipping sauce in lettuce wraps. Michael praised me on my ingenuity at JPL CIN 2018 when I use his chicken wing sauce (made of a ratio of 1:1 melted butter and Frank’s Hot Sauce) that was leftover in a chaffing dish as a crispy pork belly dip. I hate food waste and I just couldn’t imagine that butter sauce going to waste.

2. EVERYONE MAKES MISTAKES IN THE KITCHEN –
INCLUDING ANNA OLSON

Picture-perfect dishes on Instagram and pintrest may inspire some to cook, but for many the pictures can be intimidating and discourage would be cooks and bakers from even attempting to make the dish for fear of what the final product may look like.

If you’ve watched Anna Olson on Food Network Canada you know that her food does indeed look picture perfect, but perfection in the kitchen is a myth.

Anna shared a story at CIN about a cake she was recipe testing on friends coming for dinner. She was so focused on getting the frosting just right, that she forgot to take the parchment paper off the bottom of the cake layers. As she went to slice the cake in front of her guests, her knife got stuck on the paper. She had to take the cake back to the kitchen and did her best to shimmy out the parchment from each layer. With a smile, she shared that evening she served the mashed up cake as trifle instead.

So often I am worried about what the final product looks like, but I’ve learned that people I invite to my dinner table seem to be so appreciative of a home-cooked meal or from-scratch cake, they don’t care what it looks like.

We’re all bound to make mistakes in the kitchen, so get over your fear of baking and remember that even chef Anna Olson flubs up.

3. APPETIZERS SHOULD BE ONE BITE

Michael has a very strong opinion on appetizers and finger food; a pre-dinner snack should be just a bite (two at most), and nothing that is going to crumble, fall, and stain your shirt. This philosophy cuts down on plates and cutlery and a cocktail napkin or toothpick should suffice.

Check out Michael’s recipe for Super Mario Meatballs or Anna’s bacon cheese puffs for ideas on one-bite wonders for your next evening of entertaining.

4. HOW TO SAVE OVER WHIPPED EGG WHITES

Did you get distracted while your egg whites were on the stand mixer and now they’re stiff, stretched to their limit, and lost their luster? Anna Olson has a trick save over whipped egg whites. Don’t throw them out and start again. In the time it takes to make and enjoy a cup of tea, the egg whites will have deflated and you can hand stir them back to the consistency for a soft whipped peak.

5. A SPATULA IS A $1 MILLION KITCHEN TOOL

Chef Michael Olson, who has been a chef professor at Niagra College’s Canadian Food and Wine Institute for the past 19 years, shared that he tells his students a spatula is a million dollar tool. A spatula helps ensure you can scrape everything out of the bowl and into the cake plan or onto the plate. For culinary students, Michael assures them that tool can help them save a million dollars’ worth of ingredients from the bowl over the course of their career.

I never grew up using a spatula as my mom was a wooden spoon user (who let me lick the cake bowl out). But as someone who hates food waste, I took Michael’s message to heart. Today, i’m pretty sure my spatula is the most used tool in my kitchen.

6. THE HOLIDAYS ARE ABOUT INCLUSIVITY –
INCLUDING BAKING FOR YOUR GLUTEN-FREE FRIENDS

I’d like to think that Anna chose to share a gluten-free gingerbread cake at JPL CIN 2019 because she knows I’m celiac, and she wants to make sure I have something to sample at the end of each of her culinary sessions. But, it is more likely she wants to give CIN guests a recipe for gluten-free friends and family members that everyone can enjoy.

Apparently she even tricked Michael, who had no idea this holiday spiced cake was gluten free. As with most GF baking, this cake is best served day of, or eaten the next day. Gluten-free baking does not have a long shelf life. (However, if this does happen to be a few days old I’m sure it it could be used to make a tasty GF bread pudding).

7. YOUR FANCY FRENCH MUSTARD HAS SASKATCHEWAN ROOTS

Hailing from Foam Lake, Saskatchewan, Michael often shares highlights from the province he was born and raised in. Saskatchewan is the largest producer of mustard seed in Canada, about 75%, and the French buy approximately 70% of the annual Canadian production. Most often, the seeds are prepared in Dijon, France, and then shipped back to Canada at a premium price.

8. YOU DON’T HAVE TO MAKE EVERYTHING FROM SCRATCH

Don’t feel guilty about buying that frozen puff pastry. I’m sure you would expect Michael and Anna Olson to make every dish with ingredients made from scratch, but the duo have shared tips in their session on how to make life in the kitchen easier.

This year I learned that Anna makes puff pastry once a year. She packages it and freezes it, and when she has run out, she buys it in the store like the rest of us. (Look for the kind made with butter).

I’ve learned loads of sauce tricks from Michael that involve processed items available in the store.  In addition to the his chicken wing hot sauce (half melted butter, half Frank’s hot sauce) mentioned above, Michael has a simple yellow BBQ sauce made with:

2 Tbsp (30 mL) packed light brown sugar
2 Tbsp (30 mL) white vinegar
2 Tbsp (30 mL) yellow (hot dog) mustard

9. APPARENTLY I LIKE EGG NOG

My early childhood memories of egg nog are not pleasant or positive. As I got older, the addition of run to the carton mix sold in grocery stores did nothing to improve my opinion of this holiday beverage.

That was until I tasted Anna Olson’s crème brûlée eggnog. Perhaps it is the full cup of whipping cream used to make this calorie-packed drink, or perhaps it is just the magic of Anna Olson, but this recipe is incredible.

10. HOW TO STRIKE A POSE

I adore Anna’s fashion style. She always looks so polished and I look forward to her outfits at Christmas in November each year. Anna Olson takes a lot of photos with CIN guests and she certainly knows how to strike a pose. One trick she shares at the end of each of her sessions is how to stand and contort one’s body for a flattering photo. I used her point the toe and turn the torso trick successfully for years. I don’t want to take the credit for her secret… you’ll just have to attend CIN to learn firsthand.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SET FOR THE HOLIDAYS & LIVING HIGH OFF THE HOG

 

Their time at Christmas in November has certainly impacted their recipe development for the home cook or baker, and I love amassing a collection of their recipes. Both Michael and Anna have new cookbooks that would be a great gift for the holidays – Set for the Holidays and Living High Off The Hog.

A Weekend Guide to St Louis, Missouri

For the past few years we have traveled south of the border to celebrate The Spanadian’s October 16th birthday by taking in a basketball game on the NBA’s season opening weekend. This year, the league started later, so he offered up the opportunity to check out a hockey game (for me) instead. Using a search from Edmonton on the weekend we wanted to travel, he found return flights to St Louis for $420 (Canadian). When asked if I wanted to go to St Louis I replied, “sure.”

I didn’t know much about St Louis, but the prospect of watching the defending Stanley Cup Champions, the St Louis Blues, and checking out a new city sounded good to me. After a bit of research, we found more than enough things to keep us entertained. We had an absolutely amazing weekend filled with great food, fun activities, a dose of history, and a view from the top of the tallest man-made monument in the United States.

From the time we left our Air BnB to start exploring to the time we jumped on the metro back to the airport we had exactly 72 hours in St Louis.  We relied entirely on a St Louis metro pass and by walking.

HERE ARE 10 THINGS TO KEEP YOU BUSY IN ST LOUIS

* Before I upset anyone I would like to point out that a highlight of St Louis is said to be enjoying the beer. As a Celiac I don’t drink beer, nor do I like the taste of gluten free beer, so it isn’t in my top ten of things to do. Everyone we spoke to said that St Louis is a drinking city, and with a long history of Germans who settled there, the culture of beer is prevalent throughout the city. I wanted to see the famous Clydesdale horses on the free Budweiser tour of the Anheuser-Busch St Louis Brewery, but we ran out of time. From what I read, opportunities for beer tours abound a craft breweries around the city. When in St Louis – drink up.

1. View the city from the top of the Gateway Arch

Designed by Finnish-America architect Eero Saarinen, the Gateway Arch commemorates the westward expansion of the United States. At 63 stories tall (630-feet/192 m), the symbol looks stunning from viewpoints across the city. Completed in 1965, rides to the top in eight-pod trams take four minutes to complete.

The five-seat elevator pod built in the 1960s looks straight from a Bond film.

The view from 192 m up in the Gateway Arch.

Guests can spend as much time at the top viewing the cityscape through 32 windows. To be honest, I had no idea we could travel up the monument. When we learned this at the visitor center we were told that the tram can sell out so we bought our tickets in advance ($12 USD) for our final day in the city, and made sure to give ourselves enough time to view the museum (which is free).

Even if you can’t fit in a ride to the top, I recommend giving yourself time to enjoy the Gateway Arch from the riverfront. We took the Metro across the river and walked back along the Eads Bridge at sunset, which made for a spectacular view.

2. Cheer on the St Louis Blues at a hockey game (or the Cardinals if it is baseball season).

We bought resale cheap seats for the top of Enterprise Square the day before a St Louis Blues Saturday matinee game, and at $81 (USD) the tickets were less than what we would pay to watch the Edmonton Oilers back home. I found the fans passionate, the in-game entertainment amusing, and the chirps from the peanut gallery around us hilarious. I’m sure if the Blue are out of town, catching the game at a bar would be entertaining as well.

* Once the Cardinals made the second round of the playoffs we bought tickets to game 6 and fully expected to watch a baseball game on our first day in St Louis. Sadly the cards were swept by the Nationals and we didn’t get to go. We did walk by the stadium and it looked incredible – I would definitely get tickets if we were in town during the ball season.

3. Lick your finger clean at a BBQ joint

Pappy’s Smokehouse – pulled pork, beef brisket, potato salad and beans

Bogart’s Smokehouse

I ate BBQ every day I was in St Louis. On the suggestion of my old roomie Marc, our first meal in St Louis was at the famous Pappy’s Smokehouse. The vibe was cool and the pulled pork and brisket were tasty, but it was our visit to Bogart’s Smokehouse the following day that had us raving about ‘those ribs’ for the rest of the weekend. We tried Sugar Fire as well, but we enjoyed the first two stops more. During our travels around the city we spotted or smelled numerous BBQ joints – there are likely loads of hidden BBQ gems across the city to experience.

Bogart's Smokehouse rack of ribs

4. Admire the Architecture on a Historical Walking Tour

At just $10 a person, our 2.5 hour east downtown Landmarks Walking Tour was the best deal of the weekend. Our 77-year-old guide Rich didn’t stop talking or walking the entire time – he just had too much to tell us and show us. From the old courthouse to the Gateway Arch and over to the old post office, we learned about the famous Eads Bridge, (which was admired greatly by my civil engineering boy toy), admired the lobbies of buildings transitioned into hotels, and learned an incredible amount of historical and architectural details about downtown St Louis.

The lobby bar at the Hotel Saint Louis

5. Score a retro find at a Vintage or Antique Store

In recent years, I’ve started to pick up a vintage dress or piece of clothing from my travels throughout Canada and abroad. St Louis was an affordable gold mine of fabulous vintage clothing. Less than two blocks from our AirBNB in The Grove was May’s Place, and it took me all of 10 minutes to find multiple vintage finds I would have loved to come home with. I ended up returning to May’s to pick up a great winter coat, and I also picked up  a vintage dress from Avalon Exchange in the Delmar Loop,  and another at Remember Me Vintage Clothing in Soulard. If we had time, I would have loved to visit Cherokee Antique Row.

6. Take in the St. Louis Symphony

The St Louis Symphony Orchestra is the second oldest symphony in America, and the building they perform in is absolutely breathtaking. We took in the afternoon performance of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, sitting fourth row on the floor for $38 USD (for two tickets). Their new Music Director Stéphane Denève was well spoken and animated throughout the performance. Watching the SLSO was a highlight of the weekend.

7. Explore Forest Park

We walked through the 1,300 acre park, which includes not only green space among ponds, streams and lakes, Forest Park is also home to the St Louis Zoo, the Saint Louis Art Museum, the Missouri History Museum, and the St. Louis Science Center. After admiring the view of the World’s Fair Pavilion, we visited the Saint Louis Art Museum (free of charge).

8. Have a beautiful day in a St Louis neighbourhood

Enjoying a Vincent Van Doughtnut in The Grove

Outside the downtown area, St Louis is stacked with must-visit neighbourhoods packed with restaurants, bars, live music venues, shops, and of course, more history. Our stay in The Grove had us close to the metro line as well as a cute coffee shop (Rise Coffee House), donut shop (Vincent Van Doughnut), and Nepalese restaurant (Everest Cafe & Bar) offering gluten-free fare.

Rise Coffee in The Grove

We also checked out the Delmar Loop (where I enjoyed watching Fitz’s root beer get packed using vintage bottling equipment), The Hill, Soulard, and South Grand. Our best brunch was enjoyed at Polite Society in the Lafayette Square neighborhood of St. Louis.

Blackened Shrimp & Grits and Osso Buco Hash at Polite Society

9. Get inspired by indoor and outdoor art

For a city that is so committed to sports, I was surprised by how accessible (meaning free) and visible art galleries and public art was throughout the city. Before our St Louis Symphony performance we had time to wander through the Contemporary Art Museum of St. Louis (free). On our historical walking tour we passed through the Citygarden Sculpture Park, and we made the effort to come back to visit and take more photos. Eros Bendato, a massive sculpture by artist Igor Mitoraj, is one of the many pieces of art scattered throughout the urban park – when I saw a kid walking out of the head I couldn’t wait to come back to snap a pic.

Citygarden Sculpture Park

Degas sculpture at the St Louis Art Museum

 10. Listen to the Blues… seven nights a week

BB’s Jazz, Blues and Soups

St Louis is famous for live music and our walking tour guide affectionately mentioned you can listed to the Blues seven nights a week. Whether we were walking by famous venues like Blueberry Hill (or the Chuck Berry statue) in Delmar Loop, or hearing a live band playing from the patio of a bar in Soulard, it was hard to ignore the vibe throughout the city. We popped into BB’s Jazz, Blues and Soups where The Spanadian enjoyed the southern menu of gumbo and blueberry crumb while a local band belted it out.

As I mentioned previously, we managed to do everything by walking and using public transit (Metro and bus). We found St Louis a very safe city to walk around and the people incredibly friendly and polite. I never got tired of admiring (or photographing) the St Louis Gateway Arch. I’ve been gushing about your trip since our return and recommending it as a weekend away – St Louis surprised me in all the best ways.

Recap: Long Table Dinner at the Fairmont Macdonald

On Tuesday, August 20, 2019, The Fairmont Hotel Macdonald hosted their annual long-table dinner. This year, the hotel reduced the price to just $69 for a four-course menu which included a glass of wine from their signature collection (enjoyed on the patio with arguably the best view in Edmonton).

I wasn’t the only one who thought $69 for a multi-course dinner at the Harvest Room at the Fairmont Hotel Macdonald was a good deal. In response to the demand, The Mac oversold to accommodate 160 people  who were set up across two long tables in the Empire Ballroom.

A wonderful thing about the Fairmont Hotel Macdonald is their ability to accommodate just about any allergy and food intolerance you throw at them. In addition to my gluten free needs, our friends also required a lactose free dinner – no problem for Chef Mridul and his culinary team, who served up a lovely summer-inspired menu.

FIRST COURSE

Scallop aguachile, cucumber, cilantro, tempura prawns, paprika oil

SECOND COURSE

Meyer lemon ricotta & broccoli gnudi, soya steak, petite vegetables

petite vegetables

MAIN COURSE

Venison, spiced chorizo jam, roasted corn cream, glazed turnips

DESSERT

Peach 
white chocolate & peach mousse encased in cocoa butter, centered with fresh peach and mint marmalade

 

Upcoming dining events in the Harvest Room at the Fairmont Hotel Macdonald include chef Mridul’s Classic Series, which takes diners on a culinary journey around the world. I’ve been to three of his previous dinner destinations and I always enjoy his specialty chef menus. Check it out:

Classic Series: Mandarin

Date: Thursday, October 3
Time: 6:00 PM
Price: $75 per person
Location: The Harvest Room

Classic Series: France

Date: Thursday, December 5
Time: 6:00 PM
Price: $75 per person
Location: The Harvest Room

Cooking in Gascony, France

Life moves pretty slow in Gascony, an area of southwest France where I spent six days last summer immersed in a culinary course. Just how slow life moved was reinforced the day I tried to get back to the Gascony Cookery School’s kitchen before our French instructor Bernard delivered our first course of foie gras for lunch.

I had just sat down in the restaurant for lunch with a glass of rosé when I realized I had left a tart in the oven from our morning pastry class. I was hustling back the 150 meters between buildings when our neighbor, who seemed to never be wearing a shirt, but always drinking a bottle of wine, caught sight of me. “Ca va?” he asked, concerned. In my remedial French I responded that yes, I was alright. He brought his arms to his side and swung them back and forth rapidly, laughing as he mocked my urgent speed-walking.

I lacked the language skills to say my tart may already be on fire, so I just smiled and slowed my pace. The tart shell was burnt, but I made it back to the restaurant in time for the foie gras course; c’est la vie.

When I arrived in Gramont, population 160, for my culinary holiday at the Gascony Cookery School, I found myself in a picturesque village perched on a hillside surrounded by fields of bright-yellow sunflowers. The charm of the village’s chateau and a handful of homes was enhanced by a quiet and calm that was disrupted only by the occasional crow of a neighbor’s rooster or the mew of one of the cats lounging in the lane, hoping for a chin scratch as I passed by.

There were many options when I began searching for a European culinary vacation, but I was immediately drawn to the Gascony Cooking School for their English instruction and for the regional gastronomical specialties. Famous for duck, cassoulet and Armagnac – the oldest of the French eau de vies – Gascony is a gastronomical delight that remains largely unspoiled by tourism seen in neighbouring areas like Bordeaux.

After settling in Gramont, British expats chef David and Vicky Chance forged a unique friendship with Bernard Corbière, who has owned and run the village’s Le Petit Feuillant for over twenty-five years. Together they have created the Gascony Cookery School, giving students the opportunity to dive into creating Gascony cuisine classics, while also improving knife skills, presentation of dishes, and the art of pastries.

From my first sip of orange-flavoured Armagnac at the welcome reception, where I met my six classmates from across the world, I was in sensory overload. That first meal, on a terrace with a view of the Pyrenees, featured seared foie gras, duck breast, cheeses, and chocolate mousse; it was just a taste of the decadent menu for the week ahead. By the time we ate cassoulet on our final evening of the course, I was ignoring the fact that it was 35 degrees outside and was digging out a second helping of confit duck leg from the savoury stew. Parisians, and Frenchmen and women across the country, were willing to drive hours to have Bernard’s Gascony cuisine no matter the season; when in Gramont – you eat cassoulet.

As an experienced home cook I had concerns that I may not be challenged in the level one course, but David and Bernard expanded my recipe repertoire to include flambéing Crêpes Suzette, mastering a frangipane tart, and deboning a chicken with the skill to wrap it all back into a sausage-stuffed ballotine.

Between rolling out pastries, curing duck livers, and learning how to properly fillet a flat fish, our itinerary included visits to the neighbouring village of St. Clar to pick up the morning’s baguettes and collecting a grocery list of products and produce at the weekly market in Fleurance.

Our last full day in the course involved an intensive morning focusing on French desserts with Bernard – crème pâtissière, crème brulée, crème caramel – before a lesson in sugar spinning with David. I took video after video as we created sugar-spun nests, transparent shards, and artistic droplets to adorn the pastries and desserts – inspired to wow my family and friends with the same technique upon my return to Alberta.

The afternoon was spent sight-seeing the medieval fortified village of Larressingle, snapping selfies with a statue of the musketeers (D’Artagnan hails from Gascony), and touring the Château de Cassaigne, Condom’s acclaimed Armagnac distillery, for a history lesson and tasting of the prestigious local brandy.

I happily departed with bottles of the sweet aperitif Château’s Floc de Gascogne, made of 1/3 Armagnac and 2/3 fresh grape juice, which is produced in both white and rosé varieties.

As I looked out over the Valley D’Arratz from my sunflower-inspired bedroom on my last morning, I felt a sense of calm; in just one week I had adapted to the tranquility of my surroundings and the decadent dining of the region. Perhaps it was all the foie gras, cheese, and crème pâtissière in my belly, but I felt truly content. As I readied my bag to catch my flight out of Toulouse, with essences of duck confit and Armagnac still on my tongue, David handed me one of my gluten-free lemon tarts from earlier in the week – adding yet another flavour to my culinary memories of Gascony.

Recap: Taste Alberta dinner at The Common

I’ve had the opportunity to organize four Swine and Dine collaboration dinners for Alberta Pork alongside The Common’s Chef Jesse Morrison, so when I pitched him the idea of hosting a Taste Alberta – Prairie on the Plate dinner, I knew he would jump at the opportunity to create a menu featuring ingredients from Taste’s commodity partners:  Alberta ChickenAlberta Pulse Growers CommissionEgg Farmers of AlbertaAlberta CanolaAlberta TurkeyAlberta Milk, and Alberta Pork.

On Tuesday, June 25, 2019, The Common hosted over 70 diners for chef Morrison’s first ever Taste Alberta – Prairie on the Plate dinner. Together with his girlfriend Tressa (also known as my favourite local designer – Sessa Wearables), chef Morrison created a menu inspired by great local products, produce, protein and pulses in season. The result was a multi-course menu that had a fresh spring/summer taste that flowed from one course to the next.

As seen in his previous Swine and Dine dinners, Chef Morrison shared his love of Alberta pork with a perfectly cooked porchetta main course. But, he also took advantage of the opportunity  to showcase a menu that featured more of Taste Alberta’s partners. The menu was packed with high-fibre pulses, including dessert, where chef Morrison plated a play on cheesecake. Instead of using graham cracker crumbs, the culinary team at The Common incorporated whole fried pulses as the crunchy texture instead into the deconstructed dessert. Paired with quark cheese, rhubarb puree and Saskatoon syrup – the dessert was an innovative, light and refreshing way to finish the meal.

The $40 four-course meal, which included an amuse bouche and palate cleansing sorbet course, was a crowd-pleaser. Here is the menu chef Morrison and his culinary team at The Common served up:

AMUSE BOUCHE
Alberta Chicken
Sunworks Farms chicken skin crisp, rhubarb mash and shoots

FIRST COURSE
Alberta Pulses, Alberta Eggs
Sprouted Gold Forest Grains peas with cured egg yolk and creamed mustard dressing, Reclaim Urban Farm microgreens
SECOND COURSE
Alberta Pulses, Alberta Canola
Sunworks Farms Alberta Turkey, Gold Forest Grains Chickpea, cauliflower pizza with turkey ‘bonito’, avocado, pickled red onions and Mighty Trio cold pressed canola oil
ENTREMETS
Alberta Greenhouse, Alberta Honey
Khulmann’s Greenhouse Cucumber, mint and Meadow Sweet Apiaries honey sorbet

 

THIRD COURSE
Alberta Pork, Alberta Milk
Smoked Porchetta, hot coleslaw, with cornmeal gnocchi and thyme brown butter


Dessert
Alberta Milk, Alberta Berries, Alberta Pulses
Quark mousse with Rainbow Acres Saskatoon syrup, Sparrows Nest rhubarb and Gold Forest Grain crunchy chickpeas

Follow @TheCommonYEG to stay up to date on upcoming food events. Chef Morrison is always sharing fun specialty menus at great-value prices. The Hip Hop brunches are not to be missed. A big thanks to Jesse and the entire Common crew for sharing an incredible Taste Alberta menu.

The Common
9910 109 St
Edmonton, AB T5K 1H5
(780) 452-7333

A Weekend in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory

We recently celebrated our fifth anniversary with an extended weekend in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. For $300 return from Edmonton each we booked round trip flights with Air North, Yukon’s Airline, which allows guests to take two suitcases and still gives out snacks, mini-meals, and drinks for free – it could be one of the best travel deals we score all year.

We arrived late on a Thursday night, which gave us three full days to explore before catching a 6 a.m. direct flight back to Edmonton on the following Monday morning. While we easily could have spent more time in the Yukon (allowing us to walk in the footsteps of gold rush hopefuls along the Chillkoot Trail, canoeing up the Yukon River, or living up the Klondike experience in Dawson City), three days in the land of the midnight sun was enough for a taste of the Yukon. Here are some of the activities that kept us busy on our trip:

IN AND AROUND WHITEHORSE

A CULINARY ADVENTURE

Breakfast at Burnt Toast Cafe

We fueled up for a full day of Whitehorse sightseeing with a stop at the interestingly named Burnt Toast Cafe. This was my introduction to gluten-free in the Yukon, and the Croque Madame was so good I came back two days later just to order the same dish.

Woodcutter’s Blanket

Zoe, who I enjoyed a meal with in France six year prior and stayed in touch with courtesy of Facebook, joined us for dinner at the Woodcutter’s Blanket. The small log cabin is home to a hip restaurant and bar that served up fresh local brew and innovative bites. After dinner we walked along the waterfront while she pointed out local artwork including a monument which honours former students of a Yukon residential school.

Sourdough bread pudding with Yukon Jack caramel sauce at Klondike Rib & Salmon

We had several recommendations to visit Klondike Rib & Salmon, which came along with the disclaimer that it was touristy, but really good. Surprisingly, the space is not winterized and restaurant closes up at the end of the peak travel season. The Spanadian spotted the dessert counter the second we walked in, and it may be the first time I’ve ever seen him not finish the dessert – the sourdough bread pudding with Yukon Jack caramel sauce could feed a family.

MACBRIDE MUSEUM

MacBride Museum

The MacBride Museum was a great place to get immersed in the history, geography and culture of the Yukon. We spent hours exploring the exhibits that include history and beautiful artifacts from the Yukon First Nations, artwork (including a Ted Harrison collection), a taxidermy room filled with local mammals (including an albino moose), an extensive look at the challenges and speed of World War II built the Alaska-Canada (ALCAN) Highway, and a gallery filled with fabulous fashion and antiques from the gold rush.

My childhood memories of the Robert Service poem ‘Sam McGee’ and the Harrison’s colourful paintings came flooding back as guests can visit Sam McGee’s real cabin.

S.S. KLONDIKE NATIONAL HISTORICAL SITE

We stepped aboard the S.S. Klondike, dry-docked along the Yukon river, for a taste of what a journey aboard a riverboat would have felt like. A free video near the information centre shows how sternwheelers of the British Yukon Navigation Company Yukon River steamed their way between Whitehorse and Dawson City. The S.S. Klondike, which was the largest in the fleet, has been restored, refurbished, and is stocked with accessories and historical props to represent the glory days of the first half of the 20th century.

SHOPPING (OR AT LEAST SOME GOOD BROWSING)

I’m normally not one for gift shops, but both The Spanadian and I were really impressed by the quality and quantity of goods in the local gift shops and stores. Visitors can choose from beautifully hand-crafted First Nations slippers or moose tufting art, quirky local slogan t-shirts and posters, and a wide assortment of locally crafted jewelry. We also popped into a couple pawn shops which also had a wide assortment of local crafts for sale at reduced prices.

MILES CANYON

Mile Canyon Suspension Bridge

Travelling with a civil engineer means I am always on the lookout for bridges to entertain him with so the pedestrian suspension bridge at Miles Canyon was a must. The hydroelectric dam has tamed the basalt cliff-lined canyon, but narrow path likely created havoc for many boats heading towards the gold rush.

TAKHINI HOT POOLS

We soothed our muscles with a soak at the Takhini Hot Pools, which were a 30 minute drive from Whitehorse. The sun was still high in the sky when one of the staff came into the pool with a large stick to pull out the plug to begin draining the pool (which was very entertaining). Traveling in the winter? Check out their movie nights and frozen hair competition.

HIKING AT FISH LAKE

In Whitehorse, I reconnected with a friend from my days at the University of Victoria I hadn’t seen in 16 years. Amy took us on a hike to Fish Lake where she told us all how much she has loved living in Whitehorse for the previous two years; so glad we got to spend a few hours hiking together in her beautiful new home.

Day Tripping to Alaska

CARCROSS,YUKON TERRITORY

Carcross, Yukon Territory

The Spanadian was hoping to see some Caribou when he learned that Carcross is short for Cariboo Crossing. Sadly, by early June, the herd had likely moved north. Instead we spent a few hours exploring an area that is home to the Carcross/Tagish First Nation. 

After powering up with more gluten-free treats at Caribou Crossing Coffee, we found lots of photo ops among the all the railway sights, as Carcross is home to the White Pass & Yukon Route. While we opted to drive, we heard the train route is stunning and a great day activity.

Carcross Commons is home to Skookum Jim’s home, which is a MacBride museum exhibition about the gold rush. After learning how the Skookum Jim found the gold discovery which led to the Klondike gold rush, I enjoyed perusing the boutiques and even picked up a Shelley MacDonald hand-crafted ring to remember the trip.

While we didn’t have the time to explore on this trip, Carcross is a great place to hike and bike on Montana Mountain for those wanting to work or stretch their legs.

We also stopped in to see the smallest dessert in the world before taking the advice of the lovely ladies in the tourist information office and making a side trip to for dinner, rather than driving straight back to Whitehorse.

The Spanadian enjoyed a hearty batch of halibut fish & chips at the Six Mile Resort. This was the only place during my trip where I struck out on gluten free. Even though I couldn’t eat here, I found loads of amusement from admiring all the antiques, license plates, and antlers throughout the property.

 

SKAGWAY, ALASKA

Skagway, Alaska

Neither The Spanadian nor I had been to Alaska, so we were eager to cross over for an afternoon in Skagway, which is known as the gateway to the Klondike. After being welcomed by a small black on the highway, we arrived to find two cruise ships in port, which we later learned meant it was a quiet day. We arrived at the visitor centre in time to watch the free hourly showing of the 30 minute film Gold Fever: Race to the Klondike (which I highly recommend). We also picked up free tickets to a Ranger led tour of Jeff Smith’s Parlour.

Fighting Moose, Looked Horns and Died by Starvation

We learned that many of the stores are owned by the cruise ships and can be tourists traps, but we enjoyed walking the side streets where we found vintage cars, antique shops, and gold nuggets for sale. I was eager for some seafood but we were told that when people from Whitehorse get a craving for Thai food, they apparently make the drive to Skagway for a bite at Starfire. We took the recommendation we had received by several in Whitehorse, and the the spicy bowl of soup and curry at Starfire did not disappoint.

On our way out of Skagway we took the turnoff to Dyea, which shows no resemblance to the boom town jumping off point for the ChillKoot Trail it was over 100 years prior. The slight side trip provided stunning views, and a welcome relief from the cartoon like feel of Skagway, and we even spotted a bald eagle.

A HAPPY ANNIVERSARY

A weekend in Whitehorse was a great way to celebrate our anniversary. We met so many friendly and kind people who were excited to learn we had traveled from Edmonton for just a mini break. From hiking, biking, canoeing in the summer, to all the winter activities in between, there are so many reasons to come back to the land of the midnight sun. Yukon Territory – I can’t wait to come back.

Winery Spotlight Series at the Edmonton Expo Centre

With his extensive fine-dining culinary experience with Fairmont Hotels & Resorts globally, including Edmonton’s Fairmont Hotel Macdonald, it is no surprise that Chef Jiju Paul launched a Winery Spotlight Dinner series at his new culinary home – the Edmonton Expo Centre.

While the venue may spark images of concession food or banquet-plated dinners from the list of sporting, music, or trade show events that frequent the Edmonton Expo Centre, chef Paul is eager share just how memorable a dining experience at the Edmonton Expo Centre can be.

When chef Paul invited me to his second dinner in the Winery Spotlight Series, I was overjoyed to learn the evening would feature Spanish wines, especially as The Spanadian would be joining me and he would be able to have a taste of home.

Although I know chef Paul is talented, my expectations for the event were not high because I had a preconceived notion about the venue. How good could a wine dinner at the Edmonton Expo Centre really be?

Well, I have no problem admitting I was wrong. From the glass of Segura Viudas Bruta Reserva Cava I sipped as I nibbled on an assortment of Meuwly’s charcuterie at the welcome reception, to Gull Valley Greenhouses tomato tartare plated whimsically on a garden hoe, to the moment I cracked into the lifelike apple dessert shaped from chocolate, I was more than pleasantly surprised.

Our four friends who joined shared similar positive sentiments on the evening, also impressed by the quality of the food, the intimate experience of having each dish presented by Chef Paul, and of course – the wine.

For each course, our pairing included unique stories from winemaker Nathalie Bonhomme, a Canadian expat who has spent the last 28 years helping to share Spanish wines with the world. I found Bonhomme’s smile and charisma infectious, and hearing her personal connection to each wine that evening was a delightful addition to each pairing.

A lamb course followed by a cheese course made for one very happy Spanadian

While chef Paul certainly incorporated elements of Spanish cuisine, the use of so many local ingredients gave the Spanish-inspired menu a bold Canadian flavour. Repeatedly Chef Paul shared his commitment to using and highlighting ingredients like Alberta lamb, and local producers and artisans such as Meuwly’s, Gull Valley Greenhouses, and Irvings Farm Fresh Alberta pork.

Here are some of the highlights of our dinner:

Wine: Segura Viudas Brut Reserva
Reception: Amuse Bouche (including Meuwly’s charcuterie and lobster with caviar)

Wine: Kentia Albarino
Gull Valley Tomato Tartare
parmesan chips, celery leaves, micro radish, evoo, frozen white balsamic

Wine: La Bonhomme Rose
Irvings Farm Pork Belly & Pork Cheek
sunchoke puree, grilled green onion, chili oil, mojo reduction, chicharron

Wine: El Petite Bonhomme Blanco
Octopus Terrine
potato cubes, harissa Spanish olives, bouillabaisse vinaigrette

Palate Cleanser – Cucumber lime Granite

Wine: Juan Gil Silver Label Monastrell
Alberta Rack of Lamb
peas, morels, asparagus, merguez sausage & Manchego croquetas, lamb jus

Wine: Honoro Vera Garnacha
Cheese Platter
Iberico, mahon, cabrales blue, black current jelly, corn bread, pear gel

Dessert
Apple
An apple-shaped white chocolate ganache, apple gel with cinnamon apple, pecan nougatine, white chocolate caramel centre on a cookie, passion fruit gel, raspberry microwave sponge, lemon meringue, almond chocolate streusel.

Chef Paul hasn’t released the date for his next Winery Spotlight Dinner in the fall, but he hinted the series will feature Argentina wines in the fall. For $125, I feel the experience is a good value for the quality and quantify of food and wine.

I spent a six weeks backpacking and eating my way across Argentina so I was excited to learn about the next destination in the series. If chef Paul has lamb on the menu again, I’ll have no problem signing The Spanadian up to attend again.

Recap: Taste Alberta Prairie on the Plate at Cafe Linnea

Earlier this month, Cafe Linnea played host to Taste Alberta‘s most recent Prairie on the Plate dinner. Many are surprised to learn that Cafe Linnea is open for dinners, as the restaurant first became known as a all day breakfast and brunch spot when in opened in 2016.
Well, I am eager to help spread the word that chef Kelsey Johnson and her culinary team are serving up a fantastic dinner menu at Cafe Linnea. In addition to the regular dinner menu available Wednesday to Saturday nights, guests can experience a two or three course chef’s choice menu for $35 and $45 respectively. Including an amuse bouche to start the meal, I think it is one of the best dinner deals going in Edmonton.
Since the restaurant opened, chef Kelsey has used local ingredients in ways inspired by her French and Scandinavian heritage to create a menu that is unique to Cafe Linnea. Her focus on Alberta grown, Alberta raised, and Alberta produced products made Cafe Linnea a perfect fit for a Prairie on the Plate dinner.
While every chef’s menu at Cafe Linnea could be an ode to Taste Alberta’s commodity partners, on March 7, 2019, chef Kelsey shared a Prairie on the Plate menu which made ingredients from Alberta Turkey, Alberta CanolaEgg Farmers of AlbertaAlberta MilkAlberta Pulse Growers Commission, and Alberta Pork shine.
AMUSE BOUCHE:
GREEN PEA PANCAKE WITH A CREME FRAICHE AND HOUSE SMOKED HAM

To start things off, chef Kelsey shared what has become a signature canape for Cafe Linnea. The bright green pea pancake topped with house creme fraiche and house smoked ham was inspired by a challenge from Alberta Pulse Producers during Northern Lands – The Great Canadian Wine and Culinary Adventure. Chef Kelsey won the pulse challenge at that event with this colourful two-bite dish incorporating Alberta grown, split-green peas.

 

FIRST COURSE:
SMOKED TURKEY RILLETTE, LUXARDO CRANBERRIES, BRIOCHE

For our first course of the evening, chef Kelsey showed Alberta Turkey Producers some love outside the traditional turkey-time holiday season. For the event chef Kelsey, who thinks that dark turkey meat is underutalized, cooked turkey legs and drums in sage to inspire the flavour of Christmas, and paired the rillette with bright Luxardo cranberries and brioche.

SECOND COURSE:
CURED PORK CHOP ON WARM LENTIL SALAD WITH CANOLA OIL EMULSION & CARAMELIZED BABY ONIONS

The Serben Farms pork chop topped on warm lentils and served alongside a rich cold-pressed canola oil emulsion and perfectly port caramelized onions that chef Kelsey served is one of the best dishes I have eaten this year.

Our main course emphasized how when comfort food is done well, simple yet high quality ingredients can shine on a plate. Chef Kelsey’s brined pork chop transformed an affordable and classic cut of pork that I grew up into the most succulent of pork dishes. After my adoring words of appreciation for the dish, chef Kelsey shared the full recipe.

DESSERT:
CLASSIC PUDDING CHOMEUR

Chef Kelsey shared what she considers the most comforting desserts she can think of – a classic pudding chomeur. The dish translates as unemployed person’s pudding, is said to have been born in Quebec in 1929  by female factory workers who had access to only basic ingredients in their industrial neighbourhoods: butter, flour, milk, brown sugar.
While the original would have been made without eggs, the depression era dish has evolved to include some present-day accessible ingredients.
The sugar crusted topping was still bubbling when the ramekins arrived at the table for our dessert course. To help cool them down, and add some richness, our server delivered a mini pitcher of fresh cream (thank god for Alberta Milk producers).
As with every chef’s menu dinner I’ve had at Cafe Linnea, I walked away utterly sated and satisfied with my meal. Any night of the week could be considered a Prairie on the Plate meal at Cafe Linnea – as chef Kelsey is committed to showcasing some of the best ingredients available across our province, no matter what time of year. Be sure to check Cafe Linnea out:
Cafe Linnea
10932 119 St NW
Edmonton, AB T5H 3P5

www.cafelinnea.ca/

Recap: Prairie on the Plate at Under the High Wheel

Well, the 2019 Taste Alberta Prairie on the Plate kicked off at Under the High Wheel with a flavour-packed Asian infusion on Thursday night. In advance of Lunar New Year, Chef Doreen Prei shared a four-course Asian-inspired menu featuring feature ingredients from Taste Alberta‘s commodity partners: Alberta Turkey, Alberta Chicken, Alberta Canola, Egg Farmers of Alberta, Alberta Milk, Alberta Pulse Growers Commission, and Alberta Pork.

A new addition to the Under the High Wheel culinary team, chef Prei has been tasked with shaking up the dinner menu. She was eager to create a Prairie on the Plate menu to help spread the word that the brunch/lunch favourite in Old Strathcona is also open for dinner, but also because Under the High Wheel has always been a local-ingredient focused restaurant; hosting a Taste Alberta dinner was a natural fit.

Our evening started with a welcome cocktail – made with ginger and basil syrup, gin, and topped with sparkling wine – followed by a welcome from Chef Prei and an explanation of our first dish of the evening. Debra, Food & Nutrition Coordinator with Alberta Pulse Growers, was on hand to explain a little bit about the organization, which represents over 6000 farmers across the province who grow pulses including chickpeas, beans, dried peas and lentils. We also learned that Canada has become a leading producer and exporter of pulses worldwide.

First course: Chickpea and mung bean cakes, turkey confit, hoisin sauce, cucumber and green onion

Chef Prei explained how she used chickpea flour supplied by the Alberta Pulse Growers to create a chickpea and mung bean cake. During a recent trip to Vietnam, Chef Prei learned how to make mung bean milk, which was blended with the chickpea flour, eggs, and yogurt. Each of the little pancakes were cooked in canola oil and topped with crispy canola fried shallots and confit Four Whistle Farm turkey. Chef Prei braised the hoisin dressed turkey drums and thighs for six hours in duck fat along with lemongrass and star anise until fork tender.

The dish was easily my favourite bite of the night; the appetizer was fresh tasting and full of both flavour and texture. I would certainly return to Under the High Wheel to order a plate full of them (as I am not so secretly hoping they make an appearance on the new menu in the future).

Second course: Bún chả – grilled pork belly, Vietnamese pork broth, perilla leaves and herbaceous salad

Our second course of the evening was Chef Prei’s take on bún chả, a Vietnamese dish of grilled pork, noodles, and a dipping sauce traditionally served with each component separately.

Darcy Fitzgerald, executive director of Alberta Pork who was also on hand for the dinner, shared that there are over 700 pork farmers across the province. Consumers need to pay extra attention when buying pork at the grocery story in order to support local farmers, as over 70 per cent of the hogs raised in Alberta are exported – mainly to Japan where the market pays premier price for Alberta pork.

Chef Prei served a plated version of Bún chả – her favourite dish during her trip to Vietnam. Rice noodles, a slice of pork belly, a pork burger (flavoured with green onions and fish sauce), and dipping sauce made from pork bone broth, lime juice, sugar, fish sauce, garlic and Thai chilies all combined for a sweet and savoury flavour bomb of a second course.

Third course: Smoked chicken stir fry, Korean sweet potato noodles, Thai basil, chilies, eggplant

Conveniently for a few of us Celiacs in attendance, Chef Prei made the entire meal gluten free, which included sweet potato noodles for our main course. Chef Prei was inspired by Korean flavours; she smoked chicken thighs over kaffir lime leaves, wood chips, and shiitake mushroom stems. A sauce made of soya sauce, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, honey, green onions and lime juice was reduced and added to her stir fry of sauteed cabbage, shiitake mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, and lightly pickled roasted eggplants. Chef Prei enhanced the dish with Thai basil, as well as locally grown amaranth leaves.

Dessert: Passion fruit crème brûlée

My favourite dessert is crème brûlée, so I was ecstatic that Chef Prei showcased Alberta Milk farmers and Egg Farmers of Alberta with a passion fruit crème brûlée. For me, the passion fruit and coconut milk flavoured brûlée was the perfect bite to complete Chef Prei’s Asian inspired Prairie on the Plate menu. Each of the ramekins from guests at my table appear to agree with me, as the ramekins sent back to the kitchen looked as though they had been licked clean. 

I couldn’t be happier that my friend Chef Doreen Prei has found a new home in the kitchen at Under the High Wheel where I can pop in for dinner more often. I’d like to thank the culinary and serving team for helping to deliver a memorable Prairie on the Plate dinner. In addition to brunch – you can visit Under the High Wheel for dinner service Wednesday to Saturday until 9 p.m., and follow Doreen on instagram for a look at her new menu and feature dishes.

Under The High Wheel
​​8135 – 102 Street, Edmonton, AB, T6E 4A4
780.439.4442

Hours:
Monday–Tuesday: 8 am to 4 pm
Wednesday–Saturday: 8 am to 9 pm
Sunday: 9 am to 4 pm