September retreat menu

I've been told that some people attend my retreats for the food. Sure, the farmhouse is gorgeous; working on creative projects is amazing; getting away from the kids is healthy. But the food is really divine. 

If you're waiting to sign up because you're curious about the menu, I've got my first draft hammered out on the chalkboard. 

September is a great time for Ontario produce.

Waffle breakfast will have plenty of berries, stone fruits, apples and pears.

There are so many options for quiches I'll probably make them mini so you can pick a bunch: rapini, zucchini, tomato, leek, eggplant, mushroom? Who knows what I'll end up making. What's certain is that an apple and beet salad will accompany the quiche.

One of my favourite ways to make risotto is with tomatoes straight from my garden. Top it with your choice of roasted chicken, barbecued sausage, or grilled eggplant.

Sunday morning promises a spread of breakfast pastries with homemade preserves and delicious Devon clotted cream. 

Are you excited?? Make this weekend about whatever you want. Rest assured you will be well fed.

Lots of spots left for the retreat. Sign up here!

Evan Martin Caught my Fish

Today was a crappy day. Headache, body aches, rain, sleep deprived.

I dragged myself into work and realized quickly it was not a great idea. At lunchtime, I called it quits and made my way home for an afternoon nap.

But not before I made a quick stop at Kensington Market. I'm sure if I had asked my doctor, she would have agreed.

My brother was coming over for dinner and I had originally planned on sending Dustin to grab some fish for dinner. I figured I'd make the quick stop before my nap.

I love going to Hooked. I like spending a little more money for the extra quality of fish, quality of service, and for that general fuzzy feeling I get when I leave there knowing I've done something good for the world and myself. Supporting sustainable fish is delicious.

I was hoping for some wild salmon that would taste good raw, hoping to slice it up and add it to our sushi DIY dinner.

Of course they had some beautiful King Chinook available, but the really fun part? They've now partnered with ThisFish: an online tool that traces the origin of your seafood from ocean to plate. Now, when Hooked stamps your bundle with their labels, they scribble down a number for you to trace your fish!

Evan Martin is a fisherman from Sidney, BC, and he caught my King Chinook that I ate for dinner. It was harvested off Kyoquot Sound between April 21st and 24th, was sold in Richmond BC, travelled to Hooked Inc. in Toronto, and then to my belly. How cool is this?! (Click the image below if you want to see the full summary of my fish trace on

And how cool is sushi DIY? I came up with this concept a few years ago, when I was tired of standing in the kitchen making maki roll after maki roll and then having it not taste quite as good as when I first made it.

I use the packages of Korean style nori. They're small rectangles perfect for a little magical bundle of sushi ingredients. Like a miniature handroll. And the rest of the ingredients are up to your imagination.

After a ridiculously long afternoon nap, I made the sushi rice in the cooker, cut up cucumbers, avocados, kani (imitation crab meat), green onions, and the King Chinook wild salmon that Evan was so nice to catch for me. A little spicy mayo, wasabi, and soy sauce. Delicious! So many options at dinner time. And so much less work than making each maki roll for dinner!

Fishmongering 101

A fishmonger sounds like an ancient trade from the days of yore. You know, just down the road from the blacksmith and the town juggler. But it simply refers to a person that sells you fish.

I was first acquainted with the fishmongers at Hooked Inc. when I was looking for sustainably sourced fish for my first Farmhouse Retreat. The salt baked rainbow trout was a big hit, and my friend Priscilla made note of the fish shop for gift ideas when the time came.

In October, I was surprised with a gift certificate from Priscilla to attend a class of my choice at Hooked. I signed up at my first opportunity and waited patiently until March for my Fishmongering 101 class.

Dan and Kristen opened Hooked Inc. to fill a void in fish markets supporting truly sustainable sourcing practices. Although fishmongers are plentiful in Toronto, few have the dedication to learning who caught that fish, and exactly how.

At the long awaited Fishmongering 101 class, I learned how to gut, fillet, and perfectly pan fry a couple fish (a branzino and rainbow trout), and they even packed away our leftover fillets with all the necessary ingredients to replicate the meal the next day. We watched Kristen fillet a halibut (did you know it was halibut season?) and she also showed us how to make a delicious dill riesling sauce.

It's amazing how simple, challenging, and satisfying it was to fillet the fish. Chinese cuisine usually leaves the fish whole; my mom was an expert gutter and descaler, but I never learned how to properly fillet a piece of fish.

Since taking the class in March, I've been playing with options for how to fit fish fillets into my menu for the summer farmhouse retreat. Do we do a light fish lunch? Or add it to the summer bbq on Saturday night?! First world problems...

I highly recommend this class at Hooked Inc. and am hoping to take another class one day, but you need to keep an eye out for the class postings! They like to keep the classes small, and taught by the best, so they don't come out often! In the meantime, visit their locations in Leslieville or Kensington Market and feast on some of the freshest, most ethically sourced seafood in town!

Puff Pastry Pot Pies

The retreat is a mere 4 days away! It's not too late to take my last spot!

It's crunch time for the menu planning and keeping in theme with the winter comfort food, I decided that a puff pastry something-er-other would be perfect.

I've got a couple vegetarians this weekend and one of my favourite vegetarian comfort foods is a flaky, hearty, pot pie. It's easily adaptable for the meat eaters, and equally comforting when filled to the brim with winter vegetables.

Ever since the puff pastry episode of The Great British Bake Off, I've wanted to try Paul Hollywood's recipe to try and make puff pastry from scratch. If you have never heard of the show, or who this Paul character is that I speak of, you are missing out!

The method for making the puff pastry seems straight forward. Make the dough, flatten some butter in the middle, fold and flatten, fold and flatten, fold and flatten. Paul does a great video demo of how to do this, and he stresses how important it is to make sure you rechill the dough and butter between each fold and flatten.

With all the "chill for an hour" or "chill overnight" the whole process does take a little while. I took a few shortcuts (of course) and was really so impressed with the outcome. My trial pot pies were mostly delicious with such a superbly flaky and crispy crust. I did learn that you need to roll a piece of pastry significantly larger than the size of the dish to allow for lots of shrinking, but I'm feeling good about our Friday night dinner to start the retreat off on the right foot!

For the pot pie filling, I mostly followed Ina Garten's recipe for Vegetable Pot Pie: a delicious mix of your usual suspects (carrots, potatoes, onions) plus butternut squash and fennel.

Happy Family Day to all my Canadian readers!

Missing the Farm

It has been almost two months since the Farmhouse Retreat.

I'm starting to think about my next weekend retreat and I can't help but miss the Farmhouse and the retreat-ladies deeply.

I miss the cloud of creativity where we completely lost track of time.

I was wowed by racerback tank tops, zippered pouches, a gorgeous digital wedding album, cookbook organizers, infinity scarves, pinwheel quilts, the list goes on.

My best friend, Priscilla, travelled all the way from Montreal to resurrect her high-school sewing skills and whip out a custom fit racerback tank top. We had a little snag at the end trying to learn how to use the fancy Bernina rolled hem foot, but the end result was fantastic.

The weekend peaked with an Ontario surf and turf dinner: sausages from Sanagan's Meat Locker with apple braised purple cabbage, salt baked trout with wilted fennel salad, an apple cake with Ontario honeycrisp apples.

How I miss the Autumn.

Winter will be almost as good.

A new location, a new season of frosty beauty; the next retreat will be planned soon. I promise.

Wilted Fennel Salad

I'm not even sure you can call this a salad, but it is truly one of my favourite things to eat. I have entranced many fennel virgins with this side dish. It makes a great accompaniment to most anything, especially dishes needing a little crunch or acid, like a perfectly baked rainbow trout.

1 fennel bulb
olive oil
lemon (optional)

Trim the fennel tops and cut about 1cm off the bottom to peel off the outer layer or two. You could be less wasteful and use the outer leaves, but I find them a little too tough when eating the fennel raw.

Cut the fennel bulb in half and cut out the core with a little V-cut.

Using a mandolin or a sharp knife (my sontoku knife is perfect for this job) very finely slice the fennel lengthwise (vertically). If you missed part of the core then the layers may be stuck together. If it bothers you, cut them loose.

Mix the fennel in a bowl with pepper, 1/2 tsp of salt, a good drizzle of olive oil.

Let rest for 5 minutes. The salt will wilt the fennel and release some of the stronger licorice juices.

Toss and taste; add more salt if needed. Squeeze a little lemon at the end if you want a more acidic salad.

Cobblestone farm: Day 1

The first day I woke up at the farmhouse was quite wonderful, although strangely quiet.

The combination of excitement, anticipation, and habitual early wake-ups led to a 5:30am start to the day.

Mackenzie and I explored the dewy fields and watched the fog slowly lift away. The horses were there to welcome us on our first day at the farm. We even heard a distant cockadoodle-doo.

I knew I had a whole day of preparation ahead of me, but it was an awful shame not to run out into the field, arms stretched out, my head cocked to the sky, proclaiming to the world that the hills were alive with the sound of music.

My to-do list could wait. This was some rare time to myself in I-don't-know-how-many acres of quiet farmland.

After the outdoor exploring, my early morning was spent sitting in all the various spots around the farmhouse enjoying my Moonbean coffee and My Berlin Kitchen. In the open family room there were a pair of wonderfully comfortable couches that gently hugged you as if to say "thank you" for choosing this seat. There were also two nailhead-trimmed, leather chairs by the sunny patio door.  There was another living room near the front of the house, a little creakier and cozier, with an equally welcoming couch and armchair. The back deck had patio seating; the front porch had a bench and some Muskoka chairs.

I probably could have played musical chairs all day, changing seats with every couple pages. But there was work to be done.

I baked my favourite oatmeal chocolate chip cookies for weekend snacking, I made two batches of pie crust ready for the quiches planned for lunch on Sunday, and I prepped a rainbow of peppers and zucchini for grilling -- to round out the charcuterie and cheese "light dinner" planned for that evening when retreaters arrived.

The dinner spread was nothing short of spectacular. All the charcuterie was from Sanagan's Meat Locker in Kensington Market, where they support the small-farms in the nearby Ontario area. The cheese was a spread of Ontario cheddar, Ontario honeyed goat cheese, Quebec Brie, and a not-so-closeby smoked gouda (I can't get over my love for smoked gouda). And then I went nuts with the pickles. Taking the advice of many wise friends, I forwent the homemade route and just purchased a variety of deliciously tangy pickled vegetables. Local choices included spicy pickled cauliflower, giant green olives stuffed with garlic, and Matt and Steve's spicy beans. Not so local choices were some Italian pickled baby onions and the famous Maille cornichons. But I think the unexpected dark horse of the night were the grilled vegetables, in particular, the zucchini.

I dare not say that a humble grilled zucchini was the star of the night. It was simply the surprise contender. One of the most satisfying things in life is convincing someone that a food that they barely tolerated is, in fact, delicious.  Zucchini is one of those foods that can be unmemorable or downright mushy, but when cooked properly, it can be one of the tastiest. The secret is high heat, simple seasoning, short cooktime. It's surprising how soon the zucchini is ready to be taken off the heat.

Whenever I cook zucchini, I make too much. Sometimes on purpose, sometimes because I'm Chinese and too-much is just-enough. The leftovers taste great reheated, or cold in a salad. At the retreat, I actually used the leftovers to make a grilled vegetable quiche.

"Grilled" Zucchini

I put "grilled" in quotations because at the retreat, and often at home, I pan-fried my zucchini. You can fire up your grill and cook the same way, I find they both taste great but the stovetop is easier to control your heat.

2 zucchinis
2 tablespoons of good olive oil
1 tsp of kosher salt
fresh ground pepper to taste

Wash and trim your zucchini. On an angle, slice your zucchini into ovals, about 1cm or 1.5 cm thick. If you cut them thinner, they may cook too quickly.

In a large bowl -- I like to use a stainless steel prep bowl because it is lighter than glass -- toss your zucchini with olive oil, salt, and pepper. You can adjust the amount of oil to your liking. Excess can be left behind during "grilling" or you can likely use less oil if using a good non-stick pan.

Fire up your grill, or heat a frypan on the stove on high heat.

When the grill or pan is hot, add your zucchini in a single layer. You will likely need to do a couple batches. When it starts to brown, after about 2 minutes, flip and cook for another minute or two. Although they may look a little firm and you think they need longer cook time, they are actually perfectly ready.

Serves 4 sides, depending on the size of your zucchini.

Slow fishing

I'm the world's slowest eater. I like to take small bites, chew lots, and chat. It's excruciating to watch, I'm sure. The one exception is when Lily's crying. There's a mix of urgency and indigestion that forces me to either eat quickly, or not at all.

Many would argue that eating slowly is the healthier way to do it. Your brain has more time to process things, you tend not to overeat (I may have to debate that point) and you really get the chance to enjoy your food.

I have recently learned about Slow Food, and subsequently, Slow Fishing. It's one of the many initiatives that's teaching the world to step back, slow down, and take a look at how we get the food to our plate. Slow Food breaks the concept down into good, clean, and fair. The good food means tasty, seasonal, local. Clean refers to respecting the environment, our health, and the product. And being fair applies to both pricing for the consumer, and pay/conditions for the workers.

Hooked is one of many fish mongers in Kensington market, but the only one (that I'm aware of) that has partnered with Slow Fish, Oceanwise, and other sustainable-fishing focussed organizations.

I popped in after work last week to talk about fish options for my Farmhouse Retreat, and I walked away with a beautiful, super-fresh rainbow trout caught just a day earlier from a local, fair, and clean source.

My go-to method of cooking fish is always steamed, chinese-style. But for the Farmhouse Retreat, I wanted a less ethnic flavour. I've always been skeptical of salt-baked fish but have heard over and over that although it might be a bit wasteful, and it's not a magical flavour that you can't get any other way, it is incredibly forgiving. This sounded perfect for my retreat, where I will likely be overwhelmed with things to do since I tend to be overambitious with my plans whenever food in involved.

I didn't do anything fancy to the salt. Just added 1/2 cup of water to 1kg of sea salt, which was just barely enough to cover my 2lb fish.

I stuffed the trout with a bunch of thyme and slices of lemons (they pop one in the bag for you at Hooked! How nice.) The trout was gutted and scaled, but I left everything else intact: skin head, fins.

It really is as simple as laying some of the salt on a sheet pan, placing the fish on top, and then covering the fish.

Into a 350F degree oven. 25 mins later (my trout was about 2 lbs) I took it out of the oven and I wasn't ready to deal with it for another 15 minutes because I forgot that Brussels sprouts always take longer than you think.

Removing the salt is easier than I thought. I was a little too eager and did the good ol' Larry Trick (Larry is the guy in a safety video we watch at work every year about "Winter Driving" and instead of scraping his entire windshield of his car, he only scrapes a tiny hole and ends up in an accident. Silly Larry.) so I exposed a small section of the fish, peeled back the skin, stole a piece, decided it was delicious and then went back to taking the salt off the other parts. Mistake. the exposed part of the trout was covered in a dusting of salt. So just like Larry, I learned from my mistake and resisted the temptation to remove the skin before all of the salt was pushed away.

I really do feel bad about the wasted salt. I even googled to see if someone had devised a plan for reusing the salt in some way, but no forum exists for "uses for leftover salt crust".

I've decided that if you don't have the attentiveness to bake a piece of fish perfectly, removing it from the oven at the right time, and serving immediately, then this is worth the salty waste. Think of it as a biodegradable, disposable cooking vessel.

I reused the lemon wedges to squeeze on top. No additional sauce added. I served the fish with a simple side of bacon sauteed Brussels sprouts.

And then I ate it really slowly. Mmm.

Salt Crusted Rainbow Trout

1 2lb rainbow trout
1kg salt
1/2 cup water
1 lemon, sliced
1 bunch thyme

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

In a large bowl, mix the salt with the water and mix. It should look like slushy snow.

Spread a thin layer, about 1cm thick on the bottom of a sheet pan, just bigger than the size of the fish. Set aside.

Wash the fish and pat dry. Fill the cavity with the slices of lemon and the thyme. Place on the salted sheet pan.

Using the rest of the salt, completely cover the fish.

Bake in the oven for 25 mins. Remove from the oven and let cool slightly before completely removing the salt crust. Squeeze the baked lemon wedges over the fish and serve the fish in large chunks, or scoop the entire fish onto a platter and serve family style.