Top 5 Home-cooked Meals

There are a lot of reasons why I love my husband, and his superb culinary abilities are certainly high on that list. I credit him with expanding my gastronomical horizons and inspiring me to try my hand at baking. When we moved to Chicago, I started Gastronomical Wayfaring as a way of keeping track  of and sharing the recipes we’ve tried and enjoyed. In honour of David’s birthday today, I thought I’d consider the Top 5 best home-cooked meals he’s ever made. Click through on the names to get the recipes!

5. Pecan-crusted trout with orange-rosemary butter sauce

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We don’t get much opportunity to eat fish, so when we do it’s nice to savour it. This particular recipe was a surprise for us. We were a little dubious about the orange juice in the sauce, but it added a wonderful dimension to it all. The whole dish is delicate and complex, complementing without overpowering the fish. And, because it’s fish, it’s relatively quick and easy to actually put together.

4. Roast chicken for les paresseux

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This translates to “roast chicken for lazy people”, so we were immediately intrigued. It turned out to be a solid, straightforward recipe for roast chicken, yielding deliciously moist chicken. One of the fun tidbits this recipe suggested was actually including the chicken liver in the cavity while its baking and then taking it out and eating it (sometimes we even supplement with extra store-bought liver because it’s so tasty!). It also suggests placing bread below the chicken while it bakes, so then it’s soaks in all the  chicken juices. Yum.

3. Pork tenderloin with apple

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One of the early cookbooks in our cookbook collection was The Country Cooking of France, which became one of my favourites. This dish in particular rose to the top for us. We are big fans of pork + sweet in general, and the caramelized apples provide a great tangy, sweet counterpoint to the pork. Plus, I am sucker for a great gravy, and this one is a doozy.

2. Fettuccine Alfredo

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This dish deserves a spot on this list not only because it’s delicious but also for its ubiquitous presence in our lives. It is definitely a go-to meal for us, as it is also relatively quick and straightforward to make. Creamy, with a hint of spice–it provides a nice base over which you can add shrimp or breaded chicken or your choice of tasty accoutrements.

1. Swedish meatballs with mashed potatoes and lingonberry jam

Swedish meatballs

We were first inspired to make this dish after having some truly delicious meatballs in Stockholm. Our first attempt at making them ourselves were seriously good, and I think we’ve only improved upon them since. I love the combination of the earthiness of the meat, sweet and tangy lingonberries and creamy mashed potatoes. They are fairly time-consuming to make, particularly if you grind your own meat (which we like to do, as it really improves the flavour), but they do make fantastic leftovers. Plus, making and rolling the meatballs can be a fun activity to do together.

Top 5 Dining Experiences

We love to eat. As such, we’ve had our fair share of great food around the world. For us, it often isn’t only about the food– a confluence of factors conspire to make a dining experience truly great. Excellent food quality is, of course, paramount, but sharp service, a welcoming atmosphere, and even the aesthetics of the space are hugely important to us. Indeed, two of David’s all-time best meals (just based on food stuffs alone) didn’t even make the list because the rest of the dining experience lacked a certain something. In continuing with our Top 5 series, here are our Top 5 dining experiences, ones that have risen above the host of others.

5. Sportello / Drink (Boston, 2014)

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On a trip to Boston, David’s friend Justin pointed us to Sportello for dinner, a minimalist diner-style eatery serving Italian fare. He happened to be working at Drink at the time, the bar in the basement below Sportello, so we happily stopped in for a visit. It’s a great space–all brick and wood and giant ice blocks–a bustling spot that turns out some excellent drinks. It was particularly fun to get taken up by Justin from Drink through the kitchen and into Sportello (definitely felt like a very sneak-in-the-back-door celebrity). Sitting at the bar in sight of the kitchen is also a fun pastime for us, as we love to watch the crazy goings-on by all the chefs. Their hard work provided us with truly fantastic food (the pasta was divine!). Much like their minimalist aesthetic, it seemed to all be about simple ingredients done really well. It was a wonderful evening, and we left feeling very well taken care of.

4. Le Crocodile (Vancouver, numerous occasions)

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This list really couldn’t be complete without including Le Crocodile, one of our absolute favourite restaurants. The first time we visited was to celebrate our one year (dating) anniversary back in 2008, and we’ve been devotees ever since (we now have an annual dinner there with our good friends around Christmas time). Le Crocodile holds a special place for me, as it was one of my first introductions to French cuisine, which has now become my favourite style of food. Le Crocodile is so proficient at the classics–everything is always excellent, which is particularly impressive given the extensive menu. Over the last seven years, we’ve sampled copiously from that list, with their lobster bisque, pan-seared sweetbreads and duck breast with foie gras being notable stand outs. What’s really nice about getting the chance to re-visit a restaurant is that you can really get a sense of its consistency, and Le Crocodile continually turn out delicious food and provide impeccable service, year after year.

3. Girl & The Goat (Chicago, 2015)

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This Chicago establishment is on numerous restaurant lists as a must-visit, and indeed, it’s been on my list for quite some time. It is notoriously difficult to get a reservation, but I managed to make one four or five weeks in advance for a Thursday night, just a couple days ahead of our anniversary. It was a bustling spot (much larger than I was expecting, given how difficult it is to get in), but we were somewhat removed from all the hustle at our kitchen table (one of two in the restaurant), which afforded us a nice view of the kitchen. The restaurant had a fun, lively atmosphere. The menu had a variety of strange and interesting items, including pig’s face and goat belly, and David, unsurprisingly, wanted to try everything. Service was relaxed and friendly, and the drinks were top notch. The food was the real winner however–lively and unique and challenging. They definitely had a different take on familiar (and some not so familiar) foods. We stuffed ourselves to the brim with 5 dishes, but still wanted to give dessert a try. We were ultimately a bit indecisive with what we wanted, finally settling on miso-butterscotch budino (I kind of custard). Ultimately, they very kindly sent out small portions of the other two desserts we were waffling over. All in all, one of the best times we’ve had in a restaurant in Chicago.

2. L’Affaire Est Ketchup (Québec City, 2015)

the kitchen at L'Affaire est Ketchup

We can thank Anthony Bourdain for pointing us in the direction of this tiny gem in Québec (read the full details of our meal here). We had our last meal in Québec here, and boy, did they give us a fabulous send off! The restaurant is in part known for its laid-back, casual vibe, just a couple of guys cooking in a kitchen with a pair of electric stovetops for a tiny restaurant seating maybe 20 people. The food was absolutely fantastic (we couldn’t believe that they were just cooking on the kind of stoves we have in our apartment). Everything felt so genuine, really from the heart, like we were just hanging out in a friend’s apartment, cooking and drinking. Our waiter (who also served as host/dishwasher/bartender) happily chatted with us, giving David samples of red wine to try. It was a truly wonderful dining event, everything we could want in a meal–super delicious food, convivial atmosphere, and a real feeling that they love what they do. I remember waddling home from the restaurant, excitedly talking about how much fun we’d had and how great everything was, which is the mark of an excellent dining experience, something that stays with you.

1. La Grande Cascade (Paris, 2010)

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Changing gears completely from our number two, for our honeymoon, we wanted to have one grand, decadent dining experience–something to really commemorate the occasion. In my research, I discovered that “fine dining” is taken to a completely different (and largely unattainable) level in places outside of Vancouver; however,  La Grande Cascade had a prix fixe option that made it fiscally possible to give it a try (read about this dining experience in full here). The restaurant is gorgeously situated in a 19th century former hunting lodge on the outskirts of Paris. The whole experience from start to finish was just sublime–beautiful space, absolutely impeccable service (a little stool for my purse to sit on, a cart of champagne to sample from, kind waitstaff who explained some of the more unusual French food terms) and fantastic food. The whole evening had such a feeling of elegance and spectacle, elaborateness without being pretentious. We were made to feel special, almost regal, and that is something we will always remember.

Top 5 Trips

Five years ago today, I walked down the aisle and caught the eye of a handsome young man, and we agreed that spending our lives together, traveling, eating and laughing, was an awesome idea. In honour of our 5-year wedding anniversary, here is the first in a series of Top 5s, starting with our favourite trips, in reverse order of awesomeness.

Traveling is extremely important to us (we were appalled a couple of years ago, when we discovered that David’s passport had expired without our noticing, because it had meant we hadn’t recently traveled internationally). We have had the good fortune of taking over 20 trips (big and small) together, so it was a real challenge to decide on our Top 5. A really good trip is so deemed if it provides us with several key things: great food, beautiful vistas, and a slice of city life. You can click on the place names to read about our adventures in depth!

5. Québec (2015)

This was our most recent trip together, and we had a great time. The first time for both of us, we spent 5 days in Montreal and 4 days in Québec City. Though it was freezing (that’s what you get for traveling in March), the trip was made especially amazing by the fact that we ate constantly, and we ate well. While we did see some beautiful sights, we really just focused in on eating our faces off. It was quite the “manger-thon”, as we called it, just scurrying from place to place, escaping the cold into the warm embrace of delicious liver and pork products.

4. Thailand (2013)
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It was great to be able to visit Thailand with David again. We had first visited together in 2009, and it was a bit of culture shock for David (even having traveled and lived in Asia before). This time, however,  we could just dive right in. We spent the first portion of our trip in Bangkok, where David really enjoyed diving into street photography, and, of course, eating all the weird and wonderful foods you can find in Thailand. We then had the opportunity to travel to the south, visiting Phuket, Ko Lanta and Railay. We traipsed around white sandy beaches, went on a sea kayaking trip, rented motor bikes and explored, and just generally relaxed (whilst Chicago was having a particularly nasty winter). Very relaxing, lazy days are not normally how we plan trips–we’re usually on the go, taking in sights and hustling from place to place–but Thai time is very compelling/obligatory. But it’s always nice to slow things down some times.

3. Scotland (2014)

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This was also a second visit for us, and whoever said sequels aren’t as good as the originals are lying, because I’d argue we had an even better time than the first time we visited. First of all, we had fantastic weather for Scotland (only a couple days of rain! Unthinkable!). We had some delicious food and drinks and some great city time in Edinburgh, but the real winner of the trip was the flat out gorgeous landscapes we drove through. We love just renting a car and exploring off the beaten path, and we had some truly fantastic vistas on our travels. Rolling hills and meadows, dramatic seascapes, winding roads–we loved it! It was also our first trip where we tried our hand at videography (we usually just stick with photography), the fruits of which can be seen here.

2. Scandinavia (2013)

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I had never really had Scandinavia on my travel list, but I’m so glad that a conference forced it on there. What a crazy trip this was! We covered a tremendous amount of ground, starting in Stockholm, then training to Oslo and Bergen in Norway, down to Gothenburg, Sweden and ending in Copenhagen, Denmark, in about 2 weeks. While the weather was wintery (we seem to have a knack for Spring Break-ing in less than tropical locales), it somehow seemed even more perfect to be experiencing these far northern countries when blanketed in snow. These cities and towns were colourful and just different enough from what we’d seen elsewhere in Europe to be quite novel and fun. Despite being crazily expensive, the food was excellent (favourites included smørrebrød and meatballs). And while we loved the cities, the landscapes we witnessed on our tour from Oslo to Bergen were truly otherworldly.

1. France (2010)

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It is hard not to be biased by the fact that this France trip was also our honeymoon. However, being as “objective” as possible, this trip still rises to the top in both of our minds largely because it was packed full of all the things that make a trip great for us: museums and city-going, gorgeous landscapes and fantastic food. We started out in Bordeaux for a couple of days before hopping over to St-Emilion. From there, we rented a car and drove through the Dordogne region, renting a little house and cooking tasty meals with local ingredients. From there, we drove north to the Loire Valley and visited many of the famed châteaux that populate the region, finishing up with a few days in Paris. The entire trip was 3 weeks, which was long enough to not feel rushed, where we could actually spend the time visiting small towns and taking in the sights. We left feeling like we had seen the country, eaten wonderful things and longing for more.

It was quite a fun activity to sit and muse about our Top 5s. Not only to just get an impressionistic sense of which trips were our favourites, but, as any good scientist would, to really think about why these trips were the best for us. I encourage you to make your own Top 5 list!