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Surviving Winter: Short Ribs, the Perfect Comfort Food

27 Feb

Short ribs braised cocoa five spice

One of the things I love most about winter is indulging in the kinds of substantial comfort foods that you wouldn’t necessarily want to cook or eat in the middle of summer – like braises that need to cook for several hours in a hot oven.

While I always really enjoy short ribs (Jenny and I even had them on the menu at our wedding), until a couple weeks ago I’d never actually cooked them at home. But when I found myself standing at the meat counter staring at racks of short ribs on a seriously cold day, I knew it was finally time to try them out.

This recipe started when Jenny suggested Chinese five-spice powder as an ideal flavouring for the ribs. I agreed, then immediately thought of cocoa powder as the ideal partner to five spice and wine in a braise. You’ll notice that the recipe below actually calls for red wine and beer. I was originally just going to use wine, but subbed in the beer when I realized we were short on leftover wine. The end result still turned out delicious, with the sweetness from the five spice and the earthy, smoky notes from the cocoa powder pairing perfectly with the flavourful ribs. I ended up cooking this in the oven for three hours, which produced an amazing, thick sauce, but made the ribs a bit too fall-off-the-bone for my liking. As a result, I’ve suggested braising for 2.5 hours in the recipe below… check it at that point and if it needs a bit more time, just pop it back in the oven to finish.

Short Ribs browning

Short Ribs Braised in Cocoa and Five Spice Powder

1 C red wine
1 C beer
3 C vegetable stock
2 TBS cocoa powder
2 TBS Chinese five spice powder, divided into 2 1 TBS portions
Chopped onion
Chopped fennel
2 cloves chopped garlic
1 C flour

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Chop ribs and dredge in flour mixed with 1 TBS five spice, and generous grinds of salt and pepper

Heat oil in a dutch oven or other large oven-proof pot over medium-high heat. When hot, sear ribs in small batches on both sides until browned. Remove ribs and set aside.

Turn heat to down to medium. Add fennel and garlic and sauté a few minutes until translucent. Add onion and sauté several minutes more until it becomes soft.

Add ribs back into pot. Stir in cocoa and 1 TBS five spice, then add wine and stock. Turn heat back up and bring everything to a boil for a couple of minutes.

Cover with lid and put in oven for 2.5 hours, or until fork tender.

Surviving Winter: Indulge at Ambiance Chocolat

13 Feb

Valentines chocolates heart plate

Jenny and I aren’t big on Valentine’s Day. We don’t buy each other gifts, and we don’t usually go out for dinner (although we’re making an exception this year for a cool Valentine’s Day-themed event). That said, the days leading up to February 14 do tend to get us thinking about our relationship; we met on Feb. 10th, four years ago. And thinking about our relationship inevitably gets us thinking of all the things and places that we’ve discovered, experienced and loved over our time together. One of those is a little chocolate shop in Toronto called Ambiance Chocolat.

Chocolates in display case

My obsession with good chocolate is pretty extreme. I feel compelled to walk into just about every chocolate shop that we walk by, wherever we are. This compulsion hit me one day about two years ago when we were walking through the Leslieville neighbourhood and walked by Ambiance. We were smack in the middle of planning our wedding, and were trying to keep our eating in check so we didn’t end up feeling like beached whales on the big day. So when I suggested we check out the shop, Jenny resisted, reasoning that since we’d never heard of the place, the chocolate must not be anything special.

How wrong she was (a fact she’s since admitted)…

Ambiance Chocolat counter

We’ve found a lot of great chocolate shops in Toronto, but Ambiance stands out for us. The flavour combinations all sound intriguing, and more importantly, taste amazing. Belgian-born chocolatier Patrick Smets made chocolate at the Belgian Chocolate Shop in the Beaches for 15 years, but decided to open his own shop three years ago. Patrick says that the Belgian Chocolate Shop was focused on traditional truffles and chocolate, and his desire to experiment with flavours was a key reason in his decision to open Ambiance.

Caramel chocolate oozing

During our first visit, the jalapeno caramel and rose truffles caught our eye immediately. One bite and we knew these chocolates were something special. The flavours are so fresh and real tasting – the jalapeno strikes the right balance between sweet and heat, but what we love most about it is that you can actually also taste the pepper itself. And the rose (one of Jenny’s favorite flavours) has an interesting floral taste without any of the extreme sweetness that can make other rose-flavoured truffles taste artificial.

Chocolates on pink background

We fell in love with these two flavours so much that they actually ended up at our wedding. Each guest received one jalapeno caramel and one rose chocolate, along with a card that explained why we thought these were perfectly suited to represent our relationship: “Just like love, these unique rose and jalapeno chocolates are sweet and spicy, filled with surprise, strange yet enticing, and slightly unexpected, while still making so much sense,” we wrote.

Wedding place setting with chocolates

Patrick says that he makes all the caramels, ganaches and other fillings from scratch using only natural ingredients as flavouring. Ideas for flavour combinations come to him from the notes he tastes in the various chocolate varieties he uses: if a particular chocolate has citrus notes, he knows it would make an ideal partner for lemon; chocolate with smokey notes might be paired with scotch and smoked salt. He says that experimentation and being able to identify notes in different chocolate varieties are important to making great chocolate, as the wrong combination or ratio of chocolate to flavouring will result in one overpowering the other in the final product.

Chocolate cream centre

Ambiance has several truffle flavours available year-round, and also features special ones for holidays. For Valentines Day, there’s a red wine caramel-filled chocolate, as well as a “light rose” flavour, which combines white chocolate ganache with grand marnier and orange.

Valentine's Day chocolates

Aside from the jalapeno and rose, some of our favorite Ambiance chocolates are the lemon-mint (mint-infused white chocolate ganache with a tart lemon caramel), pistachio (filled with a white chocolate pistachio cream) and the mousse, made with 72% dark chocolate.

They also sell that classic winter warmer, hot chocolate. We haven’t tried it yet, but listening to Patrick talk about how Ambiance’s hot chocolate starts with a  house-made ganache and then gets mixed with hot milk (a technique that ensures a rich and intense chocolate taste) convinced us that we need to have a cup on our next visit… and to visit again soon.

Ambiance sign

Surviving Winter: Apres Ski Anytime at the Drake Hotel

31 Jan

Winter isn’t on my top three list of seasons. There, I said it. Maybe it’s because I don’t know how to ski or snowboard. Maybe it’s because I spent five consecutive winters in Ottawa, followed by five consecutive winters in Winnipeg. Whatever the reason, something about fall’s ugly sibling makes me want to stay in my house and eat bacon until my brain explodes.

But of course, winter isn’t going anywhere. Which is why Jenny and I have decided to wrack our brains and scour our city to bring Communal Table readers our take on surviving winter, and maybe even enjoying it in the process. In our first installment, we visit one of our favorite places to hang out in Toronto, the Drake Hotel, to check out their Apres Ski Sky Yard.

While the Drake’s restaurant and lounge areas have developed a reputation for consistency with creative cocktails and locally inspired food, the rooftop space has been a bit of a chameleon, changing with the seasons. In the summer, it’s a tropical tiki hut, and in the spring the space becomes a sugar shack. While the Sky Yard was outfitted last winter in an Olympic motif, this year the hotel’s design team decided to go the ski chalet route.

An enclosed, weatherproofed indoor area houses a full bar and several tables. Vintage sleds and skis sit on the walls, and a shelf of vintage blankets are available for those who need a bit of extra warmth. Those who brave the elements and venture out to the rooftop patio will find an inviting space with art installations, a skidoo you can sit on for fun photo ops, and a campfire where you can sit and roast the Drake’s homemade marshmallows to eat alone or as a S’more sandwiched between graham crackers and chocolate. Jenny was shocked to find out that I’d never made a S’more myself prior to our Drake visit, so I made sure to take advantage of the chance to cross it off my to-do list while we were there.

Roasting a marshmallow to make my very first S’more…
…and eating it. Yum!

Of course, it wouldn’t be the Drake without great food and drinks. The kitchen team has created a special Apres Ski menu of homemade gingerbread men and marshmallows, as well as cherry-flavoured candy sticks. Those looking for more sustenance can order from the restaurant’s full menu. We were able to sample everything from the Apres Ski menu, as well as a selection of great food from the regular menu. Here’s a look at some of the highlights:

The Drake’s homemade gingerbread men, resting on a pile of their homemade marshmallows. You haven’t had a roasted marshmallow until you’ve cooked a homemade one over a fire. Amazing.
The Drake Hotel’s corn fritters served with wildflower honey. Jenny said she could have eaten a plate full of these.
The Drake Hotel’s poutine: fries topped with chunks of brisket, cheese curds, gravy and fried onions. I probably could have eaten a dozen of these…

The Drake’s always innovative bar team has come up with a menu of new cocktails designed for winter enjoyment. I love egg nog, and the hotel’s Drake Nog is no exception. It’s homemade, so it tastes much lighter than the store-bought stuff (though I’m sure it’s no better for you); the Drake mixes their nog with Sailor Jerry rum. Then there’s the Boozy Hot Chocolate (my favorite), which combines vanilla liqueur and brandy with hot chocolate, and is topped with homemade whipped cream. And the White Chocolate S’more – easily the best looking of the new winter cocktails – mixes Godiva white chocolate liqueur with homemade chocolate syrup, and is topped with a chocolate-covered graham cracker and a homemade marshmallow.

Three winter drinks at the Drake: Drake Nog, White Chocolate S’more, Boozy Hot Chocolate.

Great booze. Great food. The choice of hiding inside under a blanket or sitting by the campfire in the snow while roasting marshmallows. A ski-doo. What more could you possibly need to enjoy winter in Toronto? You can check out The Drake’s Apres Ski Sky Yard until March, at which point the space will be reincarnated as a sugar shack to mark the spring thaw and maple tree runoff.

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