I Can Save More Than Walter O’Brien’s IQ on a box of Froot Loops

Some people are addicted to television. For some it’s booze. Others it’s food.  For me, it’s all three.  From a television perspective, I watch the spectrum but I’m partial to dramas.  From gritty HBO shows to cheesy cable crime fighting, I’m a sucker for it all.  One show I’m partial to is Scorpion, the absolutely ridiculous account of the life of Walter O’Brien, a man who supposedly recorded an IQ of 197, the 4th highest in history.   Him and his band of social misfits (including the actor who played “Shit Break” in the  American Pie franchise) hang in a garage and await for various facets of the government to call them for help landing planes, breaking codes or minimizing the impact of natural disasters in urban areas.  There seems to be no job too difficult for the crew but I doubt even Scorpion’s team of geniuses can match the kind of magic people like April and Chastity can perform during a episode of TLC’s extreme couponing.

scorpion walter o'brien
A Striking Resemblance

Couponing has evolved from the days of clipping paper with the same skill set required as needlepoint to needing a post-secondary education in advanced mathematics to decipher deals driven by algorithms which consist of more variables than a quadratic equation. For the purposes of argument, I will focus on my trifecta of food cost savings; flyers, checkout 51 and  PC points.

Flyers

Flyers are the blueprint of the ultimate cost saving experience. A mere glance through  the colourful pages tells you where the cheapest bread, potatoes or Nutella are.  For some, they price match.  Personally, I am against the practice of price matching for two reasons.  First, I hate making people wait for me and the thought of rifling through pages of pictures like I’m looking at mugshots after witnessing a crime makes me very uncomfortable.  Second,  I hate when I’m wrong and the last thing I want to do is be corrected by a snotty 18 year old cashier when I try and price match the wrong jug of Tropicana orange juice. I cringe at the thought of her snarled nose as she tells me “Sorry sir, but that’s the three point forty nice litre jug you have, NOT the two point sixty three litre one”. Rumour has it that grocery stores will phase out price matching in the near future.

There is a list of grocery items I refuse to buy unless they are on sale which includes pop, yogurt and cereal.  I also have a strict rule that I will not pay more than $0.25 per roll of toilet paper.  I won’t pay triple figures for pasta or a box of Kraft Dinner and cheddar cheese needs to be less that $5 a block. For other items, it’s like playing the price is right; you just get used to the prices and can easily bust into a game of grocery game or Hi Lo at a moment’s notice. In order to enforce these rules, I often need a detailed itinerary to ensure maximum efficiency. This involves minimizing unnecessary driving and understanding which stores will have the highest chance of such items in stock.

Checkout 51

I got hooked on the Checkout 51 app about a year ago and have since banked just shy of $250.  The premise seems simple enough.  Every week, you get a list of products which, after purchase, you scan the receipt and receive a cash reward.  There are numerous advantages to this app. First, in most cases (unless otherwise stated), you can buy the products anywhere.  Second, there are often big name and well recognized products such as Tide, Kellogg’s cereal and hair/beauty products like Dove, Axe, Pantene etc.  There are also practical deals for things like..umm…lady essentials.  On the fun side, you’ll get the odd McDonald’s offer and even discounted BOOZE including a few bucks off select beer, wine and even spirits.

The bad news is the fact that many of the offers are limited in number and there are cases when I got home and was too late to scan my receipt. Damn them!  Also, you have to remember not to use your receipt as a facial tissue or a chewed gum depot before you have had a chance to snap a shot.  Another factor is the fact that many of the deals repeat themselves and before you know it, you have a arsenal of dish soap large enough to survive a zombie apocalypse.

The need for Walter O’Brien comes in again when you are offered further savings for buying multiple items.  For example, sometimes if you buy 4 back to school products they will throw another $1 into your account the next week and yes, I have gone to 4 different stores to get the 4 items to get the extra buck.  I never said I didn’t have a problem.

PC Points

The introduction of PC points was deemed an evolution in points programs.  This promised to be a smarter program which analysed your buying patterns and offered deals on that basis.  It’s a bit creepy and at the same time a bit random. I mean, I get offered points for dog food regularly but this week I can save on farmer’s market muffins and boxed meat;two things I never buy although I’ve been with the program for well over a year.

You accumulate points until you have at least 20 000.  Some people will redeem ASAP while others will let the points build with some expectation that at some point they may be able to buy the store or have enough t buy food for their kid’s university career.  For me, I save the points until I have to buy something I hate spending money on.  This year, I got a great Fraser Fir at Christmas time for free.

Once again, the services of Scorpion may be required to understand PC points. The issue is the way the points are awarded.  For example, last week  I could get 1000 points for every $4 spent on Tre Semme hair care.  With three girls in the house, this was a no brainer.  The problem was the product was on sale for $3.97.  So, by buying two I got 1000 points because I was six cents short of 8 bucks. The other problem is you can only redeem an offer once.  For example, you may get 100 points for every dollar you spend on beef.  If you want to get steak at Loblaw and ground beef at Superstore, you need to decide which would cost you more and go there first so you don’t waste you deal on the cheaper product. Another reason to have Mr. O’Brien on speed dial.

The Trifecta

One of the most gratifying grocery shopping experiences is when you complete the trifecta in which you find a flyer deal which is also on checkout 51 and offers PC points.  This happens about an often as an eclipse but is just as exciting. It goes something like this…you open up the No Frills flyer to see Delissio pizzas on for $4.44.  When you open the PC points app, you also see that you get 1000 PC (the equivalent of a dollar) for every $4 spent. Finally, you flip open Checkout 51 to see that you can get a buck off a pizza as well.  In the end, the pizza costs $2.44 and you feel like you won the lottery.

My Take

I’ll admit I have a problem but I get great joy when it comes to saving money on food. Sure, I sometimes buy things I really don’t need so I build up PC points or Checkout 51 dollars but in the end a little extra time can lead to big savings and bragging rights.  Yeah..that’s right.  I have sent pictures to friends with step by step pictures and text showing  how I earned three cents buying Dove antiperspirant with a flyer special, Checkout 51 and a sheet on stick on coupons I got from a buddy and  keep in my trunk for a rainy day.  In the end, I’m no Walter O’Brien (although I could use his help sometimes) but I think keeping my mind sharp with couponing not only saves me money on shampoo but saves me having to subscribe to luminosity.com to spare my cognitive decline.

 

 

 

 

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Boralia: Helping Hipsters Forage and Making Canadian History More Exciting Since Circa 2014

Among the many things I remember about my childhood growing up in Sudbury include these three: I was a forager before foraging was cool, I found Canadian history extremely boring and I love pierogies.  From a foraging perspective, I used to make money as a teen tackling the hills of the Canadian Shield and picking blueberries as a young member of my grandmother’s berry cartel, supplying her red hat friends with bad hips with enough substrate to produce jam for the long, cold, northern winters….at a premium price. Second, I’ve always been a science guy and despite my rather trivial mind, I’m not typically a fan of history. I typically scurry around a trivial pursuit board avoiding the yellow pie at all costs.  I’ll get back to the pierogies.

In 2014, Boralia opened along the Ossington strip (well it was called Borealia at the time because I guess one couldn’t avoid lawyers even in the 1600s) promising to pay homage to the new trend of classic Canadian fare.  Hipsters, many of which couldn’t put a tent together let alone provide a synonym for a gooseberry, are flocking here in numbers not to mention that Chris Nutall-Smith listed it as one the top 10 Toronto restaurants in 2015.  Since it was my turn to pick a restaurant for a few colleagues, I thought it was a good call.

The menu is meant to be a bit of a history lesson fused with modern day food trends.  For example, two of the snacks (the Deviled Chinese Tea eggs ($9 for 4) and Chop Suey Croquettes($7.50 for 4) are inspired by the mass Chinese immigration of the 1860s.  As mentioned, I’m no historian, but I can’t imagine groups getting together in Vancouver and having potlucks while passing around deviled eggs. Nonetheless, they were decent starters although nothing that stood out anything more than a good Chinese side dish made fresh at a food court in Sault Ste. Marie or my Gramma’s eggs sprinkled with paprika at Thanksgiving dinner did…and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The main menu features a number of less orthodox proteins which requires some imagination although there are some safer choices for those who don’t want to recreate 200 year old Canadiana.  After some negotiation and hints from past patrons we knew (and a bit to my chagrin), we avoided the whelk, elk and pigeon and agreed on the l’éclade (mussels) $17, mushroom salad $14, bison tartare $15 and sweetbreads $15. The mussels, smoked with pine, was a reflection of the early 1600s.  Served in a clear dome with spiraling smoke, the mussels were delicately done to perfection. It’s so hard not to overcook these fussy mollusks and these were a huge success. The mushroom salad looked like a wreath of earthy colours and the hazelnut corn cake hidden in the foliage was simply addictive.  The bison tartare was a twist on the now ubiquitous modern day classic.  Instead of traditional pickles, punchy heat and an egg as a binder, this tartare utilized garlic and ginger , pickled fennel and lardo to add some fat to the otherwise lean bison.  The grilled bread was a delicious vehicle. The sweetbreads (circa 1876) made sense from the perspective of a nose to tail concept which was necessary during pre-war times  as opposed to cool in the modern era of excess wastage that we are now accustomed to.  Even if it’s not a traditional 19th century recipe (it very well may be), the sweetbreads were extremely tendered and seasoned nicely.

After a few drinks down but with some realization we wouldn’t shut the city down, we decided to indulge in the closest thing we could find to street meat…the bane of the spelling bee…the famous pierogi.  Whether you pick up a frozen bag for a few bucks, have a church nearby or are lucky enough to have an Eastern European family member, these delicious dumplings are the ultimate comfort food. In the case of Boralia, they had some foodie flare in that they were served on a bed of red cabbage. They were good dumplings but 3 for $13 was certainly not a price from the 1800s.

boralia pierogy

Dessert was a homey pumpkin cake with corn ice cream and probably the most recognizable  and predictable Canadian dish on the menu.  It was good but not remarkable.

boralia dessert
Pumpkin Bread Pudding with Corn Ice Cream $9

My Take

The thought of foraging can take on many meanings. Traditionally, it means to live off the land.  For some, it means erecting an urban garden in a few square feet of back yard or in a flower box on a balcony. Others may perceive it as a trip to the urban Sobey’s  across the street to to buy a few kumquats. Regardless, the concept is alive and well and has trickled into Toronto’s restaurant scene.

At the same time, Canadian food has become synonymous with living on the land.  This countries vast landscapes and diverse climates makes it a cornucopia of all things land and sea.  At the same time, as Canada’s rich multicultural history continues to evolve so does its food to the point where eatables like pierogies are now considered as patriotic as maple syrup.  Put the two concepts together and anything goes. In fact, Parks Canada devotes a component of its website with an app called the Parks Canada Heritage Gourmet App which pays homage to traditional Canadian recipes.

http://www.pc.gc.ca/eng/media/gourmand-gourmet/app-intro.aspx

In the end, hipsters can live vicariously as foragers through the Boralia menu. As for me, I may have payed more attention in history class in high school if it hinged on my understanding of the influence of various cultures on what we call Canadian cuisine today.

Boralia Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Araxi at Whistler: Cougar Milk, Penticton Cheese and Memories of Hell’s Kitchen

Let me start by saying I’m not a skier. Growing up in Sudbury, we certainly had the weather for it but the once majestic mountains of the Canadian Shield  have long since eroded to more minuscule bumps, limiting any chance of maximizing 6000 foot drops. As a result, there was no ski scene other than Adanac mountain with its’ six runs and 239 ft vertical or cross country tracks near Laurentian university.

In addition, I get little enjoyment at the thought of lugging copious amounts of equipment to a crowded resort only to dress up, wait in line for a lift and let gravity pull me down a run named Cougar Milk just to end up at the point I started.  Instead, I’m more than happy to sit in the bar and provide moral support although I do feel somewhat guilty about indulging in the apres menu when I didn’t do any of the work. Maybe this is why the Whistler ski scene bugs me so much.  Don’t get me wrong…the scenery is absolutely beautiful but it is somewhat tainted by the aberrant behavior of the town’s residents and visitors.  Here are a few examples:

  1. Nobody looks cool walking in ski boots- Ski boots are for skiing and not walking.  Regardless of your gait or corresponding wardrobe, people walking around hotel lobby’s wearing boots look more foolish that a guy trying to run in high heels as part of a fundraiser.   If you’re done skiing, take your boots off.
  2. Accents are cool unless you make them up- Whistler draws youth from around the world, especially Australia and New Zealand.  Many people find such accents cute or even sexy…unless you don’t really have one. Hanging with a few Aussies for a couple of weeks doesn’t entitle you to start speaking like them.  Accents aren’t viruses..you just don’t catch one.  In addition, making up an accent to increase your hill cred is stupid; it didn’t work for Madonna it sure as hell won’t work for you.
  3. It’s evident there aren’t an abundance of salons in the village- You can get almost anything in Whistler Village…except a haircut.  According to the map, there are a few places but most people don’t seem to use them.  Sure, chronic helmet head is inevitable in such an environment, but allowing your hair to be a refuge for alpine wildlife is taking it a step too far.
  4. Bathrobes are called bathrobes for an reason.  They aren’t called restaurant robes, lobby robes or bar robes.  If you want to drink wine in a bathrobe, use your minibar.  I don’t need to see your post-pedicured feet stuffed in a pair of disposable slippers or have to witness a wardrobe malfunction because you forgot the only thing holding you man or lady parts in place is a velour belt.
  5. Weed is technically still illegal in BC- Regardless of time of day, it is almost impossible to take a stroll through the village without wafting skunky smells here and there.  Although Whistler is far from immune to wildlife, I’m sure the smells are not the results of stinky mammals….well at least not the ones with a white stripe and fur….oh wait…and four legs.

The dining scene in Whistler is a mishmash of aristocratic eateries, snack bars, beer havens and a few very recognizable franchises such as KFC, Starbucks and McDonald’s.  I spent most of the time at the hotel for work functions, but I did have the opportunity to go to Araxi for dinner one night. Araxi is a fine dining establishment which gained national attention when it was announced the destination of the winner of the sixth season of Hell’s Kitchen.  Dave Levey, best remembered for breaking his arm while washing a fire truck, was the eventual winner.  Rumour has it he was treated like a glorified line cook and left shortly after the 2010 winter Olympics.  In 2014, he was reported arrested as part of a drug bust in New Jersey (perhaps he thought he was still in Whister). Araxi, on the other hand, has continued to flourish under long time head chef James Walt.

I started with a Cuckoo’s calling cocktail, presumably named after the Robert Galbraith aka J.K. Rowling crime novel which is funny because the only bourbons named in that novel are the cookies which are most recognizable as the long brown ones in a box of Peak Frean assorted creme that you only eat once the good ones are gone.  The drink had many of my favorite cocktail flavours including bacon infused bourbon, jalapeno, thyme, lemon and bitters.  The smoky flavour was prevalent but not overwhelming  and the rest of the flavours blended together well.

araxi cocktail
Cuckoo’s Calling $13.50

Araxi features an oyster bar and a small but diverse choice of starters and mains.  Since I rarely have an opportunity to indulge in fresh west coast oysters, I was happy to order a half dozen (three each of Zen and Joyce Point from coastal British Columbia).  They were shucked nicely and served with traditional condiments (fresh horseradish and lemon) and a spectacular mignonette.

araxi oysters
Oysters ($3-$3.50) each

A few of us also split a  Vancouver Island beef tartare tossed with Peruvian chilies, yuzu, local sweet peppers and snipped chives, spiced vegetable chips and arugula and topped with a quail egg.  It was smallish but the ingredients were in perfect proportion and  delivered fresh and delicate flavours with the right amount of heat and seasoning.

araxi tartare
Vancouver Beef Tartare $19.50

For the main I opted for the Quebec rabbit stuffed with slow cooked pork jowl with carrot puree, roasted carrots, sauteed brussel sprouts and grainy mustard vinaigrette.  It didn’t dawn on me on first but I thought afterwards it was rather strange to have a dish with rabbit and carrots together but once I tried the puree, any thoughts related to this food chain faux pas quickly hopped out of my head. It was fantastic.  The rabbit with the pork was incredible and reminded me of a two-tiered and  upscale M&M chicken tornado my mom used to make. The sprouts and carrots were a nice al dente.

araxi rabbit
Quebec Rabbit $36.50

For desert, I decided on a cheese course featuring a mix of offerings from local, Canadian and Italy sources.  I’ve tried a few such as the delicious Benedictin Bleu from Quebec and P.E.I.’s Avonlea Clothbound Cheddar before, but although not normally a huge fan of the softies, the Poplar Grove double cream camembert from Penticton was the star.  In addition to the decedent taste,  its glistening interior was visually stunning. The fig compote was unbelievably good as well.

araxi cheese
Cheese Plate $23.50 for 5 cheeses (a little more for the extra)

My Take

Whistler draws thousands of annual guests ranging from novice skiers to village wondering orophobic tourists.  As a result, the variety of shops and eateries is quite diverse.  Whether it’s an urban taco bar or a swanky sit down, there is no shortage of choices.  Araxi is one of the most recognized of the latter and lived up to its long standing reputation although at resort prices. Whether it’s untamed hair or an affinity for the maryjane, just remember what happens in Whistler should stay in Whistler…just ask the winner of  Hell’s Kitchen six.

Araxi Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Nana: Daycares and David Bowie

I was pondering how to incorporate the recent passing of David Bowie into a blog post when serendipity occurred. I went to dinner at Nana and the soundtrack was nothing but the Thin White Duke.  Starman, Heroes, Jean Genie and a number of other classics blasted from the rafters, reminding me that Bowie was truly a chameleon in that a skinny white dude’s music fit perfectly within a crowded Thai restaurant.

Social media has changed the way we recognize dead celebrities.  My facebook was littered with tributes from people telling the world what Bowie meant to them from a fashion and music perspective.  Others credited him for making them feel unapologetic about being different and how they changed his life. Maybe I’m just a clueless moron or a heartless muttonhead (which I think is the perfect insult for a person who writes about food), but his impact on my life was less exciting. That said, I appreciated his quiet and private approach to stardom.  He lived by example and not by sponsored endorsements or fabrications.  From a music perspective, I would always stop on a Bowie song if I was flipping through my Sirius.

I tried to find some sort of relationship between Bowie and Nana and the closest I came was that Nana (along with a whole bunch of other nana’s) were lyrics in a 1968 song called Ching-a-Ling written by Bowie as part of a trio named the Feathers which also consisted of his girlfriend at the time and guitarist John “Hutch” Hutchinson.

Looking for a link between Bowie and anything related to food also proved a dubious task. I did find one interesting story however. Prior to Bowie’s leap to permanent stardom in 1969, Bowie briefly appeared in a rather psychedelic  commercial for Lyons Maid ice cream Luv lollies as a way to make a few bucks. The following clip is worth a watch, but  here are a couple of interesting facts:

        • These treats came with rock star trading cards which included the likes of the Beatles and Davy Jones.  The latter is actually David’s real name but he chose Bowie as his surname to avoid confusion.  A series of trading cards from Mr. Softee in the early 60’s depicted an astronaut named Tom and rumours suggest that this was, because of Bowie’s need to collect, the inspiration behind Bowie’s most famous protagonist Major Tom.
        • The commercial was directly by Ridley Scott. It’s quite coincidental that in the year the rock icon dies, Scott may finally win an Oscar for best picture (he has been nominated for best director thrice in the past but has yet to win) for “The Martian”  which one can argue has a plot similar to “Space Odyssey”.

 

Nana is a spinoff of Khoa San Road, the highly successful downtown Thai restaurant. According to the website, Nana means meeting place.  According to me, it means daycare since the plastic red seats and big tables, looks more like you find them at a babysitting service than an Asian street market . Unlike KSR, Nana takes limited reservations which a least gives you a hope of eating without a wait.The menu offers KSR favorites as well as a spattering of items which represent the Thai street experience.  Each dish is described in detail on the second page of the menu which makes things easier for people who don’t know the difference between pad mama and pad prik.

They offer a small selection of wine, a few unique draughts and a Thai themed cocktail list. I started with a Silom Sour which incorporated Thai flavours such as ginger, lime and chili in a very enjoyable cocktail. It was topped with chili powder which surprisingly numbs the lips in seconds.

nana drink
Silom Sour $12

Tom yum soup is usually my go to measure of a great Thai experience and I thoroughly enjoyed Nana’s version. It was a true testament to intense Thai flavours boasting a great level of heat and plenty of chunky mushrooms and tomatoes. It was one of the better Tom Yum soups I have had in a restaurant.

nana soup
Tom Yum Soup

Our other appetizers included spring rolls and chicken satay but saying por pia tod sai moo sub kub nua pu and sa tay kai kub nam ar jad sounds a lot more fun (although it’s a spellcheck nightmare).Both were good.  The mushroom was a great addition to the rolls and I thought the lightly pickled veggies were a great addition to the normally predictable chicken satay.

We ordered a variety of mains for table including pad mama with hot dog, pad prik king with chicken, pad thai bo lan and pad see ew.  We also tried to get the mi ga ti with pork which looked incredible based on the description but was unavailable.  In general, the dishes are in the $15 dollar range for a slightly skimpy portion size.  The pad mama, supposed the mac and cheese of thailand, was gimmicky and resembled something a creative university student might with make with leftovers.  The pad prik king was the best dish of the night.  The chicken was tender and bursting with heat and extreme Thai flavours.  Both the pad thai and pad see ew were a terrific testament to two of Thailand’s most recognized noodle dishes.

I never get excited about Thai desserts but the roti kuay (buttered roti dough, cooked and folded with banana) was a decent finish to the evening.  The table split an order which was plenty, especially after a mass infusion of rice and noodles. Cutting it was a dubious task, however, since there are no knives available to customers (once again reiterating the fact that this place is probably in fact a daycare).

nana dessert
Banana Roti $8

My Take

Nana is a funkier version of its sister restaurant, Khao San Road.  It is smaller but does entertain the thought of reservations which made it a feasible destination for my group. The draught list is small but good and the cocktails are smartly constructed. The Tom Yum soup is among the best around and the dishes pay commensurate homage to Thai flavours.  I’d highly recommend the pad prik king and you won’t be disappointed with any of the noodle dishes.  The pad mama is a good gimmick but not a great dish.

In the end, Nana is a place where you can enjoy pretty good food in a communal environment and if you’re lucky, you may even hear some Bowie in the background or get to  play Simon says, I spy or clapping syllables to the names of Thai dishes such as por pia tod sai moo sub kub nua pu.

Nana Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato