Mini-Break in the Mountains: Jasper in January

With the low Canadian dollar and cheap gas prices, I imagine many families are considering staycation options this year. Moreover, although Calgarians often point out Edmonton’s comparable distance to the Rockies as one of our shortcomings, the four hour drove to Jasper really isn’t that much to overcome. It’s definitely close enough for a weekend jaunt, and personally, knowing that a vacation from work is implausible over the next few months, a short getaway is exactly what I’ll need come spring.

Athabasca Falls

Athabasca Falls

My familiarity with Jasper began only a few years ago as an adult, as Banff was my family’s destination of choice growing up. A weekend at the Jasper Park Lodge’s famed Christmas in November in 2014 opened my eyes to the town as a destination in winter. I continued learning about Jasper’s possibilities a few weeks ago, along with Mack and some other media folks, including Linda, Mike, Gail, Phil and Robyn. Tourism Jasper covered our accommodation, transportation and most of the meals that we enjoyed over the weekend.

Linda

Linda takes an #elkie

Jasper in January has been taking place for twenty seven years, and what started as a celebration of skiing and snowboarding at Marmot Bason has grown into a wide-ranging festival that features other winter sports, arts and food.

Getting There

Did you know that there is a shuttle that runs daily from Edmonton to Jasper? Well, neither did we, until we booked the Sundog Transportation and Tours bus. It departs from West Edmonton Mall at 3:50pm, to arrive in Jasper by 8pm, with brief stops in Hinton and Edson along the way ($89 one-way ticket for adults). The ride was comfortable, and as Mack noted, it was nice not to have to drive, especially after dark.

That said, the only departure time from Jasper back to Edmonton was at 7am – which means it wouldn’t be possible to make the most of a two-night trip to Jasper. We ended up carpooling home with Phil and Robyn to extend our stay into the afternoon.

Also, as we were shuttled around the Jasper area as a group, had we been without a personal vehicle, it would have been difficult to make our way from one destination to another outside of anything within the town site. While taxis were a reliable source of transportation, they may not be the most economical solution for a holiday.

Scenic Pastures

The highlight of our visit was an afternoon at Marmot Meadows, a Parks Canada Winter Hub. Throughout the season, there will be opportunities to learn more about wildlife, Aboriginal culture, and winter activities at a site that encourages interaction with the outdoors. A skating rink was in the process of being formed (which, as a TV junkie, reminded me of the picturesque mountainside rink in the first season of Everwood), and a cross-country ski track was well-worn in the valley.

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Yes, I’m having Everwood flashbacks

Our group participated in a beginner snowshoe activity. Unlike the snowshoes I remembered from my youth – those wooden frames based on more traditional models – Parks Canada staff introduced us to lighter, metal frame versions that were easier to use. We padded into the woods with our guide, relishing the steps into fresh, undisturbed powder.

Mack & Sharon

Snowshoeing

Left to our own devices, Linda and I engaged in some friendly competition, racing short distances in the snowshoes. It was the most fun I had all weekend, and a winter activity I am now inspired to continue in the future.

Linda & Sharon

In it to win it

On Sunday, Phil and Robyn took us to some of their favourite natural wonders. Athabasca Falls is beautiful in the warmer months, but is perhaps even more breathtaking in the winter, with cascades of ice and snow churning below.

Athabasca Falls

Athabasca Falls

With the hard packed trail, it was obvious that many have come to admire the Falls in the winter. But given the parking lot was uncleared, and the walkways were for the most part snowed over and unsanded, it doesn’t seem to be an officially sanctioned attraction in the winter.

Robyn & Phil

Our tour guides

Pyramid Lake, in the shadow of a peak that shares the same name, is set up as its own outdoor activity hub in the winter, and is only about a ten-minute drive from the town of Jasper. Mountain Park Lodges, which operates Pyramid Lake Resort adjacent to the lake, maintains several rinks and ski trails. They offer rentals for visitors without equipment, but we spotted many families who brought their own equipment for an afternoon of shinny, skating or cross-country skiing. In some ways, given the picture-perfect setting, we were surprised there wasn’t evidence of overt commercial sponsorships from national brewing or coffee brands.

Pyramid Lake

Pyramid Lake in winter

We had some fun throwing around curling logs, and warmed up in the lodge with some brunch. Afterwards, we took part in a genuine horse-drawn sleigh ride (no wheeled wagons here). At $25 per person, it could be a steep price to pay for families, but for us, it was a manageable cost that weekend. The rides are especially popular around the holidays, but continue to be offered on weekends until the end of March, conditions permitting.

Sharon

Curling logs!

With the jangle of sleigh bells and the breathtaking mountain in front of us, it felt like a postcard experience. The sleigh even had fuzzy warm blankets for the ride, appreciated on that blustery afternoon.

Jasper in January

Horse-drawn sleigh at Pyramid Lake

Good Eats

Jasper in January had three themed weekends: arts, appetites, and adventures, though some activities spnned multiple weeks. Our trip centred around appetites, and I’m happy to say, we discovered some culinary gems.

The Wicked Cup is a great place to start your day. It’s a charming establishment with a restaurant, cafe and gift shop, and based on their brunch offerings, I wouldn’t hesitate to return for other meals. The pancakes ($10.50) I ordered were not for the faint of heart, served with a wild berry compote and whipped cream. They were fluffy and delicious, and yes, felt a bit like having dessert to start off the day.

Wicked Cup

Classic pancakes from The Wicked Cup

Jasper Brewing Company is a brew pub located within the town site. They have locations in Banff, Calgary and Fort McMurray, which all have individual identities and offer different signature brews. John Palko, the brewmaster in Jasper, was noncommittal about a future location in Edmonton, but didn’t rule it out.

Jasper Brewing Co

John Palko of the Jasper Brewing Company

Their model is to sell their beer from the brew pub itself, with the exception of festivals or fundraisers they participate in. Jasper Brewing Company prides itself on serving fresh beer – from mash to pint in 10 days – and produced 115,000L in 2015. Their most popular beer is their Jasper the Bear honey ale.

Mack tried a flight of their beers, which is a great way to sample the six they had on tap. His favourite ended up being the Liftline Cream Ale.

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A flight of beers from Jasper Brewing Company

We also learned a bit about backcountry cooking at a session led by Wild Current. For winter camping excursions, because of the cold, it’s even more important that people stay hydrated and consume nutrient-rich foods. We sampled some rehydrated pastas and chilis (made by adding hot water directly to the package), as well as a stew put together by Wild Current staff.

Jasper in January

Serving up stew

It was somewhat curious that instead of assembling the stew as a demonstration, we were told it had been put together off-site and just reheated on the campfire. Hopefully Parks Canada reworks the session in the future to make it more hands-on and interactive.

For dinner, we were ushered to the majestic Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge. We enjoyed a three-course meal consisting of highlights from Orso Trattoria’s regular menu, and for me, dessert took the cake. The Tarte de Nero, paired with a ten year Tawny Port, was a rich and satisfying way to end a wonderful evening. As has been my experience at the JPL, the service was once again top-notch.

Jasper in January

Tarte de Nero from Jasper Park Lodge

Wines in Winter is an annual wine tasting event hosted by Mountain Park Lodges. The $30 ticket was perhaps the best value item all weekend – besides the appetizers that were included within the price, attendees were able to sample over 100 different types of wine.

I would have personally liked to have seen more Canadian wines represented, but we did find our way to the Ontario and BC labels being poured. Mack couldn’t help but be drawn to the Great One.

Wayne & Mack

Enjoying the Wayne Gretzky Series Cabernet Merlot

Our last meal before departing for the weekend was both scenic and delicious (typically, it’s only one for two). The Pines Restaurant inside the Pyramid Lake Resort has a lakefront view, and is beautifully designed to take advantage of the panoramic sights.

Pyramid Lake

The Pines Restaurant

Mack and I both couldn’t resist the decadent croissantwich ($12), layered with a fried egg, avocado, tomatoes, chorizo, and cheddar. The only downside was perhaps not having the foresight to order two sandwiches each.

Pyramid Lake

Croissantwich from The Pines

If you’re planning to attend Jasper in January next year, take a look at Jasper in January for what to expect, or more broadly, at any time of year, on Tourism Jasper for ideas – I’m already looking forward to our next mini-break in the mountains.

Thanks again to Tourism Jasper for the opportunity to further explore Jasper!

Check out Mack’s post about our weekend here.

Culinary Highlights: 2014 Edition

I had a blast in 2014. Mack and I got married, had an amazing honeymoon, and leading up to it, we had our usual packed summer schedule. It was a wonderful year, with memories to last us a lifetime.

Here were some of my favourite food moments last year, starting off with some great local eats:

Tavern 1903

A part of me still doesn’t want to believe Tavern 1903 is closed for good; we loved the Korean fried chicken, truffled mac and cheese, and the desert shrub was my favourite cocktail in the city – RIP

Brunch at Elm's Dining Room

Although the Elm Café Dining Room is also no more, we loved their pop-up meals, which included buttermilk biscuits at brunch

The Parlour

I never thought I’d like, let alone enjoy, seafood on a pizza, but The Parlour makes magic happen with the Gamberi

Route 99

It was the year of the selfie – it seemed appropriate for Mack and I to take one at our favourite diner in the city

We did hit the road a few times before the honeymoon, with our annual winter sojourn to Calgary, a trip to Toronto for a friend’s wedding, and out to a nearby farm we’ve always been meaning to visit. We also had the privilege of attending Christmas in November at the Jasper Park Lodge.

River Cafe

It’s hard to believe it took us years to finally dine at Calgary’s River Café, but I guarantee we won’t wait that long before returning

Bymark

While in Toronto, our one splurge meal was at Mark McEwan’s Bymark – although the pan-seared halibut was perfect, it was the beluga lentils that spoke to me

Edgar Farms' Asparagus Festival

The return of locally-grown asparagus is what signals spring to us, so I’m happy we finally made it out to Edgar Farms’ annual Asparagus Festival last June

Sharon with the Olsons

It was a bit of a thrill for me to meet the Olsons at Christmas in November

Tourtiere

And though I probably didn’t cook as many new dishes this year as I have in the past, I can say that Anna Olson inspired me to make my first ever tourtiere. Even better, it turned out really well!

As usual, we had our share of events, starting with Eat Alberta in the spring, multiple What the Truck gatherings, our second 97 Street Night Market, and an ImMACulate Garden Party.

Eat Alberta 2014

It was my last Eat Alberta as a part of the organizing committee – it has been a blast!

What the Truck?! on 104 Street

What the Truck?! returned to 104 Street, in what was my favourite event of the year (the fact that I live on the street may have affected my choice)

97 Street Night Market

The 97 Street Night Market returned to Chinatown, and this year, included a food tour

Blink ImMACulate Garden Party

We partnered with the Hotel Macdonald for the ImMACulate Garden Party, a fundraiser for the Edmonton Humane Society

In early September, my sisters organized the best bridal shower for me. We started at Gail Hall’s loft for a cooking class, walked over to Tzin for an amazing meal, and ended with some bridal games.

Bridal shower

Making gnocchi at Seasoned Solutions

Sharon's Bridal Shower

We were lucky enough to receive two helpings of the bacon at Tzin

Bridal shower

The beautiful brides!

On September 27, 2015, I married my best friend. The only tears were happy ones (and mostly from me). To cap off a beautiful day, we had the most wonderful reception at RGE RD.

Mack & Sharon Wedding

Thanks to Blair and the team at RGE RD for a truly memorable meal (photo by Moments in Digital)

There’s so much more to say about the sights and sounds of Vietnam and South Korea that we experienced, but for now, these are the dishes that I’m still salivating over.

Honeymoon Part 1: Hoi An, Vietnam

Our homestay by the beach in Hoi An was a dream – where else would breakfast involve a regional dish as complex and delicious as cao lao?

Honeymoon Part 2: Ho Chi Minh City

Authentic bo bun hue in Ho Chi Minh City

Honeymoon Part 2: Can Tho

While in hindsight we should have included Hanoi in our itinerary, it was an experience to have pho for breakfast in Can Tho at 6 a.m.

Honeymoon

Japchae and fried rice at South Korea’s Namdaemun Market

Honeymoon

Mack will also never forget his favourite street dessert – an ice cream-filled waffle for $1

Though I’m still not certain where this year will take us, I can only hope it’s as delicious as 2014. Thanks for following along with me this year!

Christmas in November: Make-Ahead Entertaining with Chef Michael Allemeier and Final Thoughts

The whirlwind didn’t stop on our last day at Christmas in November. Mack and I were atypical early risers that morning on the promise of a behind-the-scenes kitchen tour. And even when we discovered that we had been misinformed (no tour had been scheduled on the final day), like dialing 55 for any other need, we were soon met by one of the chefs to make it happen regardless.

Christmas in November

The cooking never stops

It was a quieter time, to be sure, with preparations for the final brunch buffet yet to be underway. Still, the staff we encountered were contributing to the well oiled kitchen machine.

Christmas in November Christmas in November

One man controls all of the alcohol and foodstuffs

We were surprised to learn that the capacity of the hotel dropped so significantly after the departure of the last Christmas in November guests, but in a way, it explains why they pull out all of the stops for the event in what would otherwise be a very slow period.

Christmas in November Christmas in November

How about some stock?

It was a brief peek behind the curtain of a kitchen that did a wonderful job over the course of our stay – bravo!

Christmas in November

And did someone say wine?

Our last session of the weekend was with Chef Michael Allemeier of the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology. It was obvious that Chef Allemeier was not only comfortable in the teaching role, but excelled at breaking seemingly complex dishes down into a series of manageable steps.

Chef Michael Allemeier

Chef Michael Allemeier

His entertaining philosophy revolved around preparing as much as possible ahead of time. In his ninety minute demonstration, he managed to work through an appetizer, a main course and a dessert. Although each dish was composed of multiple components, most could be made ahead of time and reheated just before serving. A little planning can go a long way!

Unlike some of the other menus we’d encountered over the weekend, Chef Allemeier’s was much more finessed, with restaurant-quality touches and plating suggestions. The fennel-cured salmon with horseradish mousse, creamy beets and pickled quails eggs sounds fussy at first, but it was definitely a starter with a wow factor.

Christmas in November

Fennel-cured salmon with horseradish mousse, creamy beets and pickled quails eggs

Some of his tips:

  • Using previously frozen fish is fine, and even recommended as the idea is to dry out the filet, and in the process of thawing out, it will continue to lose moisture;
  • Keep the skin on, as the layer of fat helps with the development of flavour, and makes it easier to carve;
  • When the fish feels like a medium-rare steak to the touch, it’s done;
  • This process could also be used with halibut, but it will require a few more days.

Chef Allemeier’s recipe for cardamom clove glazed ham with ginger snap crumb was much more familiar, but was paired with a unique twice baked souffle instead of the usual scalloped potato. His trick for hams (the majority of which are already cooked and more easily dried out) is to keep the temperature low and to build a delicious glaze.

Christmas in November

Cardamom clove glazed ham with ginger snap crumb

The blueberry sour cream cake and chantilly sour cream, lemon curd and sponge toffee featured recipes that could be replicated individually and work equally well paired with other sweet endings. Chef Allemeier called the sour cream cake the “unsung cheesecake”, and said that it was a dessert that reminded him of Manitoba.

Christmas in November

Blueberry sour cream cake and chantilly sour cream, lemon curd and sponge toffee

Some tips:

  • By lightly flouring the blueberries before mixing them in the batter, they won’t sink;
  • The cake is even better the next day – let it sit in the fridge overnight before serving.

Chef Allemeier was keen to answer questions all throughout, but never seemed condescending. It was clear he was used to working with audiences who ranged in knowledge and abilities, and even factored in the need for the crowd to snap photos of the final product – each dish was plated, garnished and put forward for the paparazzi.

Thanks to Chef Allemeier for a thorough and informative session; I felt inspired to try at least one of his complex dishes at home!

After the final session, we returned to the main reception hall for our farewell brunch. Talk about overindulgence – in addition to the dozen chafing dishes overflowing with breakfast and lunch favourites, there were omelette and carving stations to choose from.

Christmas in November

Omelette station

It was a good chance to wind down, and enjoy the last meal with those we had befriended over the weekend.

Sharon

My last Christmas in November meal!

As a whole, Christmas in November provided a great opportunity to get away from the city. No question, it’s a luxurious trip, but one that combines learning and food in a wonderful setting. I could see why it has been a formula that has been successful for twenty six years.

Mountain Sheep in Jasper

Wildlife in Jasper

It’s hard to argue against the option of a Friday to Sunday package, especially to accommodate those who could only take one day off work (myself included), but given we only had about two hours of “free time” not spent in sessions or in meals, if we returned, we would definitely opt for a three-day package. It was really only on Sunday afternoon after the last meal that Mack and I had the chance to go for a walk and enjoy the surrounding outdoors.

Jasper

One of the picturesque paths around the Jasper Park Lodge

Based on the current website, and the desire for the event to attract a younger demographic, I’d recommend organizers release a detailed presenter and session list in advance. For those unfamiliar with the quality of the event, it would be difficult to justify the expense without knowing the content of the sessions. Also, the one page in the program that listed the names of the presenters for each of the packages would have been a great summary to refer to online – although information on each presenter was available, it was cumbersome to navigate.

It was also not clear to us beforehand just how much food and drink would be included over the weekend. The evenings featured free flowing alcohol (wine and sponsored spirits), and we were never in want of food. Between the lavish meals and the samples provided in the cooking sessions, it felt like we were eating non-stop. The extent of that value was definitely not apparent in the website description of the packages.

For small parties looking for a joint escape (like many of the ladies groups, stagettes or coworkers we encountered), Christmas in November is a timely way to do so before the season takes over with other engagements. The cost for an individual or couple would definitely have to be weighed against another similarly-priced trip to other destination, but as I’ve described over this series of posts, those who enjoy food and love to entertain will see the value for their dollar.

Christmas in November

Thanks for the memories, Jasper Park Lodge!

Thanks again to Gastropost for sponsoring a lovely weekend, allowing Mack and I to experience the magic of Christmas in November firsthand.

To learn about some of the other Christmas in November sessions, and for more recipes, check out the Gastropost CIN site.

Christmas in November: Cocktails with Bob Blumer and a “Chopped” Reception

Before our gala dinner, we joined a small group inside the clubhouse kitchen for a VIP session with Chef Bob Blumer. Known as the energetic host of shows such as Glutton for Punishment and World’s Weirdest Restaurants, we were hoping Bob’s humour and enthusiasm would come through. In the end, we thought he had planned the perfect cocktail hour session, featuring recipes for both a drink and a nibble.

Bob Blumer

Bob’s caesar twist

Bob’s cocktail of choice was a caesar, made with a lemon vodka and a special rim. For additional kick, Bob recommended using honey and freshly grated horseradish. Mack, who is definitely a caesar fan, gave it a thumbs up.

Bob Blumer

Mack eagerly accepts a taste

For his cheeky shrimp on the bar-b, Bob continued the spicy theme with pan-fried chipotle-rubbed shrimp. Served with a cilantro dipping sauce, it was a tasty one-bite appetizer. And how is the dish related to its name, without reference to a grill, you ask? Simply serve the shrimp accompanied by what else – a Barbie doll.

Christmas in November

Shrimp on the Bar-B

For his final trick, Bob attempted to sabre a bottle of champagne, a trick he had taught fellow presenter Chef Lynn Crawford earlier in the week. Unfortunately, he must have had a faulty bottle, as his several attempts failed. It was a little nerve wracking to watch – a few of us were convinced the bottle would shatter before the end.

Bob Blumer

1…2…3!

Thanks to Bob for a fun start to our Christmas in November evening!

We headed back to the main lodge for the gala dinner. With everybody dressed up, it was a good time for photo ops.

Mack & Sharon

Gorgeous Christmas decorations

Santa was even on hand to make sure adults weren’t left out of the seasonal pose.

Christmas in November

With Diana, Vincci and Brittney (aka the Gastropost crew)

Jasper Park Lodge had pulled out all of the stops, decking out the reception hall in sumptuous linens and holiday colours.

Christmas in November

Gala décor

They had also organized great entertainment. The Willows, a trio based out of Toronto, sang a series of retro-inspired Christmas songs that lent a classic lounge feel to the room.

The Willows

The Willows

Dinner, unfortunately, was a little less consistent than our banquet lunch earlier in the day. The mountain foraged mushroom ravioli was pretty good, topped with braised beef short rib, but the buttermilk brined Alberta pork tenderloin was dry for most around our table (though I recognize tenderloin would be a difficult cut to prepare well for such a large crowd).

Christmas in November

Mountain foraged mushroom ravioli

Christmas in November

Buttermilk brined Alberta pork tenderloin

Dessert was an elegantly presented callebaut milk chocolate cup containing vanilla panna cotta.

Christmas in November

Callebaut milk chocolate cup

Before the dance closed out the evening, guests were treated to an “impromptu” Chopped-style competition, with teams drawn from attendees and presenters.

Christmas in November

Chef Dale MacKay advises his team

Chef Lynn Crawford (dressed as Santa) was the judge, and as the competition progressed, she narrated the proceedings for the crowd’s amusement. As you would guess, it was more than a little chaotic, but I had to respect the contestants. Cooking under the tenure of celebrity chefs isn’t easy, and they did it with good humour and grace under pressure. The winner of the contest was the team led by Charcut Chefs John Jackson and Jessica Pelland (the latter of which has actually won Chopped Canada).

Christmas in November

Chef Corbin Tomaszeski works with his team

A live band came on to close out the night, but Mack, Brittney and I had other ideas. We had spotted a games room in the basement of the lodge, and had time for a few rousing games of air hockey.

Brittney vs. Mack

Brittney vs. Mack

Back in our room for the night, we realized the staff of the hotel had been by for turndown service. It was the first time we’ve experienced this service, and though it wasn’t necessary, the Jacek truffles were a sweet surprise.

Christmas in November

Sweet dreams

It was a fun day full of learning, food and big personalities. We were glad to rest up for the last day of sessions.

Christmas in November: Cooking with Chefs Dale MacKay and Lynn Crawford

The title of this post is a bit of a misnomer, as hands-on cooking with the presenters only seemed to happen incidentally. The focus was on demonstrations, and though in some cases, this was the only way to address a large crowd, in other instances (like with Chef MacKay), they missed an opportunity to offer more tangible learning sessions.

Although I was gunning for Albertan chef Connie DeSousa to win the first season of Top Chef Canada, it wasn’t a surprise that Dale MacKay pulled through in the end. And though his television debut is perhaps still his claim to fame, more recently, his year-old Saskatoon restaurant Ayden placed on EnRoute Magazine’s Best New Restaurants list. I actually didn’t know that Dale had relocated from Vancouver back to his hometown, but its great to hear other “back to the Prairies” stories – Toronto and Vancouver doesn’t have it all!

Unlike some of the other presenters, Dale focused on preparing a single dish of spinach & ricotta ravioli with brown butter sage sauce. This meant he could more thoroughly share his guidelines on fresh pasta dough, forming ravioli, and assembling the final plate.

Chef Dale MacKay

Dale preparing fresh pasta

If I walked away with anything at all from the session, it was how making fresh pasta isn’t all that difficult at all. He recommended making up batches to freeze in smaller single portion servings for quick emergency meals that would take twenty minutes to thaw (enough time to throw together a sauce) and three minutes to cook.

Some of Dale’s pro tips:

  • The gauge if you have the right thickness of pasta for tortellini, pass your hand underneath the dough – if you can see your fingernails, stop rolling.
  • To force the ricotta filling into the end of your piping tube, grasp the top and swing around the bag, rodeo style!
  • Make sure to force all of the air out of the half-moon pasta shapes, to ensure the filling stays in place during cooking.
  • Only use fresh herbs for the sauce – dried herbs will burn. As a bonus, the fried sage can be used as a garnish on the final product.
  • To filter out the brown butter sauce, use a coffee filter – its easier and cheaper than cheesecloth.
  • Toss your cooked pasta together with the sauce in a bowl instead of in the pan – it is gentler on the pasta!

Dale was no doubt one of the more low-key presenters, but his technical knowledge and skills were obvious. At times, I did find that he made assumptions about the audience’s level of understanding, but he was always open to questions and was one of the few presenters to build in a hands-on opportunity to assist (in this instance, with pasta folding). Given his detail-driven nature, it would have lent itself well to workshop-style delivery so attendees could feel the thickness of the pasta, and practice the shaping on an individual basis.

Chef Dale MacKay

Gastropost Alberta Community Manager Brittney Le Blanc (centre) learns how to fold tortellini

After the demonstration, we had the chance to taste the final dish (Dale had brought a total of nine hundred frozen tortellini prepared in the Ayden kitchen along with him to Jasper). The pasta was simple but delicious.

Christmas in November

Spinach & ricotta ravioli with brown butter sage sauce

Dale was gracious enough to pose for a photo at the end of the session. I wish him continued success with Ayden! It’s also worth noting that Chef MacKay will be back in Edmonton in March, as one of the guest chefs at Edmonton’s newest food festival, Northern Lands.

Sharon with Chef Dale MacKay

With Dale (and no, the backdrop isn’t photoshopped!)

From Chef MacKay’s focused session, we transitioned to the other end of the spectrum. Having been invited to Christmas in November with Gastropost, we were also given the chance to attend a VIP session with Chef Lynn Crawford. Billed as the “headliner” of the event, most in the crowd that afternoon seemed to be fans eager for a chance to see Lynn live in person. As a result, I’m not sure the majority of the group minded that it was entertainment, not learning, that dominated the hour.

Chef Lynn Crawford

Cocktail hour with Lynn Crawford

Lynn was an energetic host, and played Pharrell’s “Happy” to lighten the mood. She also invited several audience members to assist her with the demonstration, including the preparation of a modified version of her Pitchin’ In cocktail, a combination of apple and lime juices, rum, carrot puree served in a brown butter-rimmed glass. I wasn’t sure about the carrot, but it seemed to add more colour than flavour.

Christmas in November

Pitchin’ In cocktails

The assembly of her fried chicken with lemon thyme honey (a popular dish at her Toronto restaurant, Ruby Watchco) was scattered, to say the least, and most of the actual cooking took place outside of the room and away from our prying eyes inside the Jasper Park Lodge kitchens. To their credit – we did each end up with a plate of the finished product, with a side of cornbread and slaw to boot.

I will say that Lynn did remarkably well in taking things in stride – when another class paraded into our room, music blaring, without missing a beat, she invited them all to stay for fried chicken. Given the group had just finished up their champagne tasting, she also seized the opportunity to show us a new skill she had gained that week – how to sabre a champagne bottle.

Chef Lynn Crawford

Off with the cork

It was all in good fun, but I will admit, it was a little too much of a whirlwind for me.

Mack and I had a bit of time to change before attending another session just before dinner – they definitely pack it in at Christmas in November!

Christmas in November: Tres Carnales and the Olsons, too

After breakfast, we started off our second day at Christmas in November with Edgar Gutierrez and Dani Braun, two of the three men behind Edmonton’s Tres Carnales and Rostizado. They shared their holiday traditions with the crowd, as a means of providing Mexican-inspired Christmas ideas.

Rostizado

Edgar Gutierrez and Dani Braun

Las Posadas is a nine-day celebration observed in Mexico. Preceding Christmas Day, Dani explained that Las Posadas recreates the experience of Mary and Joseph being turned away. After “actors” dressed as the couple are declined at two residences, they are welcomed into a third home. At that final destination, friends, family and neighbours would then gather and enjoy food and libations, which often would include ponche de frutas (traditional Mexican fruit punch) and tamales.

The ponche de frutas was relatively simple to make, with the only complicating factor being the need to source ingredients at a Latin American supermarket (such as Tienda Latina in Edmonton). The dark ruby colour of the punch was extracted from sorrel flowers (better known as hibiscus), which was described as a more versatile ingredient than I expected – Edgar often adds the hydrated petals into marinades, blends them into vinaigrettes, or adds them into quesadilla fillings. The punch was delicious, with a flavour deeper and richer than seemed possible. Mack especially enjoyed his rum-spiked version!

Christmas in November

Ponche de frutas

Consumed more as a snack than a meal, tamales can be sweet (filled with fruit) or savoury (filled with anything from potatoes to chickpeas or meat). Because they do take time to assemble, Dani and Edgar recommended doing so with others to make enough for the freezer – for them, tamales are a family affair!

Some tips:

  • Take time to soak the corn husks to rehydrate them – don’t be tempted to light them on fire!
  • The corn husks can also be used in place of parchment paper for en papiotte dishes to steam fish or pork.
  • If sourcing dried corn husks are difficult, banana leaves are a good substitute.
  • To determine if the dough mixture is ready – drop a tablespoon of dough in water. If it floats, it’s ready!

If the process sounds daunting, not to worry – Rostizado serves them with salsa roja and queso fresco.

Rostizado

Assembling the tamales

For dessert, the flan de queso was introduced as a great make-ahead dessert, intended to be served cold from the fridge. A cream cheese flan, the velvet-smooth custard was topped with a beautiful caramel, sure to wow your guests.

Christmas in November

Flan de queso

Ever the enthusiastic hosts, the hour or so with Dani and Edgar flew by. It was clear they were both passionate about their food, and were so proud to share some of their family traditions with us. It was a fun way to start off my Christmas in November experience!

There was no question I was most looking forward to seeing Chefs Anna & Michael Olson at Christmas in November. Back when the Food Network featured more cooking than competitions, I loved Anna Olson’s shows Sugar and Fresh with Anna Olson. She always made daunting dishes seem straightforward, even when they weren’t so on paper. I was hoping she was as lovely in person as she seems on TV – as it turns out, she was even sweeter (heh, heh).

I didn’t know much about her husband beforehand, but after watching Michael ham it up on stage, it’s obvious he’s the life of the party. That said, the two together would make great television, playing off one another, telling stories and exchanging bad jokes.

Anna & Michael Olson

Anna & Michael Olson

The theme of their session was a winning menu – because, as Anna mused, “Isn’t Christmas about winning and showing up your sister-in-law?” In conjunction with Alberta Pork, they had developed four recipes ideal for entertaining.

The Olson’s mini pork schnitzel sliders could easily fit on the menu of any upscale casual establishment in Edmonton. Designed as an appetizer which holds (crispy, I might add!) in a warm oven, it would be a definite crowd pleaser for adults and kids alike.

Slices of pork tenderloin were pounded, then seasoned, breaded and fried (make sure to salt and pepper the fillets directly instead of using seasoned flour, to ensure each piece is seasoned well). The schnitzels were then topped with a creamy ranch dressing (which could double as a veggie dip) and served on dinner rolls.

Christmas in November

Mini pork schnitzel sliders

The sliders were so good, Mack ended up eating two!

Christmas in November

Amy and Tiffany enjoy their sliders

Next up, the three most practical tips to come from Anna’s classic tourtiere recipe were:

  1. Make it in a springform pan, making it easier to disengage and serve;
  2. Let your butter sit out for half an hour before making the pastry – it will combine better than ice cold butter; and
  3. Following her pie dough recipe, which, instead of factoring it in negatives (e.g., “don’t put too much water”, “don’t over knead”), she has written it in positives (and for those looking for a gluten-free crust recipe, click here).

The tourtiere can be made ahead and reheated, which would certainly make life easier during the busy holiday season. The final product was stunning, and though I didn’t get a chance to taste it, given how approachable the recipe was, I will definitely try my hand at it this Christmas.

Christmas in November

Classic tourtiere

Michael’s recipe for a brie and cranberry stuffed pork loin with maple onion cream was his alternative to a more standard roast. His method of stuffing the pork was also free from twine, and instead involved making a deep cut inside the loin and spooning the cheese and cranberry mixture in the crevice.

We sampled the finished roast and enjoyed the combination of the moist pork and its creamy centre. For smaller family gatherings this would definitely work well in place of a turkey.

Christmas in November

Brie and cranberry stuffed pork loin

Lastly was Anna’s bacon cheddar shortbread, a recipe she developed specifically for Christmas in November (the gluten-free version substitutes a 1/2 cup of tapioca flour and 1 cup of quinoa flour for the all-purpose). I’m not the keenest baker, but given the ease in which the dough came together in the food processor, I will definitely be trying my hand at these – they would make a great hostess gift!

Anna recommended making and rolling dough in advance, saran wrapping them and labeling them with the name and temperature at which they should be baked. Then, when they’re needed (as a gift or cocktail hour treat), you could simply thaw the dough and bake them off – genius!

Christmas in November

Bacon cheddar shortbread

We had a great time learning and laughing with the Olsons. The couple celebrated their tenth anniversary as Christmas in November presenters this year, and I could see why they’re welcomed back again and again – their warmth and knowledge makes them great ambassadors for Canadian food. I hope they will return next year!

Sharon with the Olsons

Doing “the Olson” with Anna and Michael

If the pork appetizers weren’t enough, the festive luncheon certainly did us over. Banquet meals for several hundred guests are not often executed well, but the kitchen did a fantastic job with lunch. I could have easily had a second bowl of the Twin Meadows red kuri squash soup (I loved the roasted pumpkin seeds incorporated for texture).

Christmas in November

Red kuri squash soup

The salt-brined Alberta free range turkey was equally delicious, served with buttermilk mashed potatoes and a dried fruit stuffing.

Christmas in November

Salt-brined Alberta free range turkey

The pumpkin cheesecake was perhaps a little too deconstructed for most at our table, but was beautifully plated.

Christmas in November

Pumpkin cheesecake

As full as we were, an afternoon nap wasn’t an option – we had several more sessions to attend before finishing up the learning portion of the day.