I’m in Toronto for nine days, and oh man it is good to be in a real city, to be able to walk down the street, passing through narrow alleys between brick mansions and into streets where cafes and pubs spill out onto the sidewalk so that passersby brush shoulders between the menu board and the bike racks. And smelling the smells of it all—flowers then ice cream then coffee then perfume then sweat and something fried—I love even the bad ones. San Diego has its merits; the sea, the beach, and the weather come to mind. But San Diego has nothing like this. To be in a northern city on their first really warm day of Spring is something else entirely.
That’s not to say that I don’t have some gripes, though. I’ve seen at least three “health food” stores selling nothing but bottles of pills, and good luck trying to buy beer after 9pm outside of a bar. And don’t get me started on wine, which you can’t buy even in a beer store. No, it and hard alcohol are only sold in special stores, selling nothing else and scattered quite sparsely throughout the city. I’m spoiled by California’s lax rules. We heathens can buy handles of whiskey and cases of wine along with our toilet paper, baby food, and turkey at the local supermarket.
I’m visiting the Fields Institute to attend a course by Paul Goerss. In my free time, I sit in cafes and work on my research or review the notes from the class. When I tire of working, I wander around for a while. Toronto is a great city for that, full of neighborhoods with each their own character. I especially like Kensington, with its funky artist culture and shops spilling out onto the street. I wonder how the cope with winter—most of the shops are literally on the sidewalk.
I’ve had several good meals so far. My favorite was the Kensington Kitchen, which is not exactly in Kensington, but a bit to the north, and pretty much around the corner from where I’m staying. Kensington Kitchen serves fresh Mediterranean and Middle-eastern influenced dishes, none to pricey. I had a nice bowl of lamb stew with apricots, raisins, and chickpeas, served with a tangy herby yogurt sauce and brown rice. Unfortunately, I forgot my camera when I went there, and I regretted it greatly, since the treetop dining patio was incredibly adorable.
For one lunch, I had some grand eggs florentine at Maggie’s diner on College. The poached eggs overtop of freshly sauteed spinach and toasty english muffins come with your choice of hollandaise or tomato-basil sauce. I went with the tomato-basil and it was just great with the perfectly poached eggs and fresh spinach. Pretty healthy, too, except for the fact that it came with a side of irresistibly crispy garlic fries.
Last night, I had dinner with some other graduate students, who are also visiting the institute. We went to a Mt. Everest, a Nepali place on Bloor, and the food was pretty tasty. We ordered a bunch of dishes to share, and all were well-spiced and seemed healthier than your average Indian fare (if you’ve never had Nepali food, it’s essentially northern Indian food).
I’m staying in a little one bedroom apartment with an honest kitchen, so I decided that I would check out the weekly farmer’s market and pick up some local produce to make myself a quick dinner tonight. I wandered around the bustling St. Lawrence market for a while, noting the produce, before deciding to pick up some fiddlehead ferns. They are pretty much a Northeastern regional delicacy, so I thought I’d give them a go. I also got some local garlic, spring onions, and hothouse tomatoes. All of these came from the Ontario farm of Doug and Rose Webb.
I had never eaten—let alone cooked—fiddlehead ferns before tonight, but I must say, they are quite tasty. The flavor lives somewhere between asparagus and broccoli, springy-vegetabley, if you will. And they’re just so darn cute, aren’t they? Dear little fiddley ferns, why don’t you grow in California? Oh, right.. it’s mostly desert.
For this simple pasta, I blanched the fiddleheads (man, that’s a great name) in some salted water until they were just barely tender. After shocking them in an ice-water bath, I tossed them into a pan where garlic and green onions were softening in butter. When the whole wheat spaghetti was cooked, I drained it and added it to the pan with the ferns, along with a good squeeze of lemon juice, another little bit of butter, and some pea shoots that I picked up at a sprouts store down the street. Yes, Toronto has an entire store/cafe devoted entirely to sprouts! The pasta was perfectly light and springy, and the tomatoes made a great simple salad alongside.
Tomorrow, I move to a bed and breakfast, so no more cooking in Toronto for me!
Pasta with Fiddlehead Ferns
2 cups fiddlehead ferns, cleaned
10 oz pasta
2 tbs butter or olive oil
4 cloves garlic, sliced
4 green onions, sliced
juice of 1 lemon
1 tbs butter
1 cup pea shoots
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Bring two pots (one large, one medium) of well-salted water to a boil. Put fiddlehead ferns in the medium pot and cook until just tender, about 5 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare an ice-water bath. When the fiddleheads are cooked, transfer to the ice bath. Put the pasta in the large pot of boiling water and cook until al dente.
Meanwhile, melt the butter or warm the oil over medium heat in a large saute pan. Add the garlic, the green onions, a pinch of salt and a few grinds of black pepper. Saute until soft, but not browned, about 5 minutes. Add the drained fiddleheads and cook until warmed through, adding the pasta when it is ready. Squeeze the lemon juice over the pasta and add the final pat of butter and the pea shoots. Toss until the butter has melted and the pea shoots are wilted. Taste for seasonings, adding salt and pepper if necessary.
Serves 2 as a main, or 4 as a side dish.