Sunday, September 18, 2022

Eating up the Hill: The evolution of the caf's General Tso Chicken

You're not going to get high-quality Chinese food from a Parliament Hill Cafeteria -- you'd do better at a nearby mall food court or, better yet, walk down to Sommerset Street and Chinatown. But for a quick lunch that is a nice change, I always try to make it to the caf when General Tso Chicken comes up on the rotation menu of daily specials.

It's been a staple for most of my seven years on the Hill and the basic idea has remained much the same: chicken in a general tso sauce on fried rice with a spring roll and plum sauce. It tends to align with one of my preferred soups, so it's a nice once a month or so treat.

There have been some bumps on the General Tso road over the years. It tends to be a popular dish, so occasionally they've run out of chicken -- usually unbreaded chunks of processed-looking white meat. On these occasions they will sometime sub in a couple of breaded chicken strips and sauce them which is curious, as chicken strips aren't on the menu at all -- if so, they'd be in my rotation. I asked once, and apparently they only keep them on hand for chicken emergencies.

Sometimes they run out all together.

One time I was down early but they had pulled the special -- apparently they felt the sauce was too hot this day for the Hill population to handle. I have never even gotten a hint of heat from their General Tso sauce, but my sensitivity has been dulled by years of Scarborough Hakka and South Asian cuisine.

A few months ago, I ordered the special when it was up and it was inedible. The sauce was just gross and the chicken very low quality.

Still, I believe in second chances, so when it came up in the rotation again I took the plunge, assured they had made changes. And indeed, they had. The first and most noticeable was that they were now using breaded chicken nuggets. Rather than being in the sauce as before, they were kept separate from the sauce and were sauced on the plate. The veggie rice was also now just regular rice, although the number of red peppers in the sauce seemed increased. All through the years, the spring roll has remained an unchanging constant.

Breaded nuggets are an interesting choice. I'm not sure what the General would say. I mean, it's higher quality than the most recent chicken iteration, but it's far from traditional. I miss the veggies in the rice; hell, even tossing in some of that pee/carrot/bean frozen veg mix would be welcome.

Glad to see them trying to innovate the menu, though. Maybe rotate this out for something in a peanut sauce or a curry though? Better is always possible, my friends.

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Saturday, September 17, 2022

Eating on the road: A smashburger in Muskoka

I'm always on the lookout for a good smashburger in my travels, and during my summer visit to Muskoka I was pointed to the Fare Food Co. It's a food truck located behind a Shell gas station on the way into Port Carling, and if you didn't know it was there you would never think to stop. Even knowing it was there, I wandered around a bit before finding in in a clearing behind the station.

They also have well-recommended chicken sandos, including a Nashville hot, but I was here for beef and ordered a double smash cheeseburger with fried and the obligatory diet coke. They promised to bring it to me when ready, and I found a seat on a picnic table up a small hill in a closed-in picnic area.

They cooked it fresh and brought it up to me when ready and I dug in. It was hot, beefy, cheesy and like a good smashburger will be, messy. It certainly filled me up. As far as smashbugers go it was fine, not spectacular but satisfied my craving. I'm not a fry person; they were just OK. With the Muskoka tax it wasn't cheap ($18 plus tax), but that's how it goes in cottage country.

Were I to go back I would likely try the Nashville hot chicken sammy but I don't think I'll get the chance. They were a summer pop-up and have closed for at least the season, if not forever, as they focus on a catering business in Toronto.

What will be the next great Muskoka smashburger? Or will Muskokans need to invest in oversized spatulas and start smashing their own burgers? Time will tell.

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Friday, September 02, 2022

Eating off the Hill: Ein gutes deutsches Essen bei SchnitzelWorks -- schnitzel lunch!

I again found myself with a rental car today before I head out of town for the long weekend tomorrow, and so my thoughts of course turned to where can I go for lunch that I couldn’t easily on transit? Having been watching a lot of German food videos lately, some googling lead me to SchnitzelWorks on Cyrville Road in Gloucester, which was rated highly and well-reviewed for its namesake dish.

That’s what they specialize in, and if you don’t like schnitzel you should probably go somewhere else. But I do, so this was the spot for me. It’s in a unassuming standalone building in an industrial area, as good food often is, and they look to do a brisk lunch business with lots of regulars – and indeed, are only open for breakfast and lunch.

The menu is long, but it’s all pretty much variations of schnitzel. You can get pork schnitzel or chicken schnitzel, on a bun or as part of a platter with sides. You can get a dizzying array of toppings; the traditional Weiner Schnitzel just takes a lemon wedge.

I went with a platter though and with what was a favourite of mine when I lives in Germany – beef gravy with mushrooms. Also known as jaeger schnitzel or hunter schnitzel. The platter comes with Spätzle (an egg pasta I always choose over fries in Germany) and red cabbage.

My drink came quickly, and my lunch wasn’t far behind – they run an efficient operation. The pork schnitzel was the size of my plate, pounded thin and breaded then shallow fried, and smothered in mushroom gravy. It sat atop a half plate of Spätzle and another half plate of red cabbage.

Truth be told, I had missed the cabbage in the menu description and wasn’t a fan – I would have just had them hold it if I’d realized. But that was the only down note.

The schnitzel was generous and tasty, the mushrooms plentiful, the noodles filling. Definitely as good as I’m likely to do outside Germany – and much better than the pretenders that serve schnitzel on Sparks Street.

With entrée and drink and tip it ended up near $35 (plater was $22), but it was a hearty meal. For a lighter lunch without a side, schnitzel sandwiches start at $15.

I left thinking I wouldn’t be back any time soon as I don’t regularly have a car, but I realized driving back home that it was maybe a five minute walk from the Cyrville O-Train station. So maybe I’ll say los gehts! again sooner than I thought.

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Saturday, August 27, 2022

We used to be able to disagree without thinking you're being controlled by a global elitist cabal

Taking a break from food reviews because this is too long for Twitter. The harassment of female journalists and politicians has been highlighted by high-profile incidents in recent weeks. They deserve to be called out. But these are not unique incidents. They’re signs of a breaking down of societal norms, of the rules of a civilized society we once took for granted being washed away.

It increased during the pandemic, but that’s not the cause. Social media probably hasn’t helped. But I’m no a sociologist.

But I do triage the public email inbox for an MP and monitor the social media. And the number of people that jump straight to hatred and vitriol is crazy. Because they disagree with your policy, they view you as unworthy of common courtesy. As something other than a fellow human being, trying to do the best they can.

I used to think, you’re tough behind a keyboard but would you say that to her face? Well, as we have seen in Alberta with Chrystia Freeland, the answer is yes, they would. Though the online bullying and harassment faced by journalists like Rachel Gilmore is just as chilling. And as we’ve seen, online harassment and threats do often carry over into in person acts. Certainly, it’s just as injurious to mental health.

All I can think is, this isn’t how my Mother raised me. Even when deeply angered, I couldn’t imagine talking to someone rudely, never mind threatening violence and harassment. Maybe passive aggressive or sarcastic comments.

I had a dream a few years ago I think is illustrative. Short version, I was on the Hill and then former PM Harper walked by me. A friend said “Prime Minister” while I said “Steve”, which earned me a glare. I felt bad, so I later found him to apologize and say, while I don’t believe in calling people by former titles like the Americans do, I should have been more respectful and called him Mr. Harper. He called me a hack and walked away, but that’s besides the point.

We used to be able to disagree without being disagreeable. We may disagree on policy, but we’re all trying our best to build a better country. We could respect the office, if not the holder. We could find common ground in fundamental values, like racism is bad. That there’s not a global conspiracy to control the British Pound and keep the Metric System down.

Now, it seems like we’re no longer living in the same world with one another. If we can’t agree that the sky is blue, left is left and right is right, it’s hard to agree on much of anything.

And it’s hard to not fire back in kind. The number of angry email replies I have written in my head could fill a book. Politely providing facts doesn’t seem to help; they have their own facts and won’t be dissuaded – their sky is a different colour. Polite non-engagement seems the only way.

As I said, I don’t know the cause. It’s probably a dozen different things. Social media echo chambers. Decline of trusted news sources, and trust in news sources. Stress and fear and anxiety fueled not just by a pandemic and inflation, but by longer-term economic and social trends.

I don’t think it’s caused by or linked to partisanship. It exists outside partisanship. But I do think some partisans are trying to exploit it, and that shouldn’t be glossed over. It should be called out when it happens. And if you’re a political leader trying to harness it for your own partisan ends, you’re playing with fire and you’re going to get burned yourself. Because they will turn on you when they see you have no solutions but the blame game and empty platitudes.

I think we all have a role to play here. The media need to get out of their “some say the sky is blue, some say it’s yellow” laziness and do actual reporting. Facts aren’t partisan. The sky is blue, you can say so. Just report the truth. When the truth is being distorted, say so. That’s not partisan. That’s journalism.

Political parties and groups need to stop pandering to conspiracy theorists and sending dog whistles to racists. Call out, and cast out, the devils in your own tent. Anger is a powerful motivator, but short-lived. Hope is stronger and longer-lasting.

Governments must not descend into the muck. Resist the urge to fire back in kind. Craft policies that meet the needs of the people and do your best to explain them. Help those that need help. Stand for values. Reach out to others with good ideas willing to work with you. Trust that most people will see you’re trying to do right by them. Admit when you get it wrong, fix it as best you can, and do better in the future.

And I would urge everyone condemning what happened in Grand Prairie last week (and I thank you) to also take the weekend to reflect on your own words and actions. Look back on your own rhetoric. Do you disagree without demonizing your opponents? Do you attack the idea or the person? Because while you assuredly don’t like where we’ve ended up, when you break down the societal norms we used to agree on this is where we end up. Do you lean on fear as a rhetorical crutch?

I’ll end with the words of a great philosopher, Yoda.

“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

PS While this isn't limited to women they do seem to be the most targeted. So it's misogyny layered on top of everything else.

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Thursday, August 25, 2022

Eating off the Hill: New McDonalds chicken sandwich, the McCrispy

I'm always on the look-out for chicken sammy updates, and so when I heard McDonald's had a new chicken sandwich I knew I had to try it out for lunch my next in office day. 

McDonald's has has two main chicken sandwiches on its menu, the cheaper McChicken with processed meat and a regular chicken sandwich with breast meat that was a bit more expensive whose name I forget. Various variations are possible to those two bases, such as adding bacon for a deluxe version, or lately a rotating array of spicy mayos. There's also, of course, the Junior Chicken, a smaller patty, and that patty is also used for the English Muffin Chicken sandwich offered at breakfast.

I usually go for the classic McChicken, but this new McCrispy replaces the old fancy option. It's available in two base varieties: the McCrispy with shredded lettuce and mayo, or the McCrispy Deluxe which adds a slice of tomato and bacon. All on a potato bun.

I opted for the regular McCrispy, although I did try to swap out the regular mayo for a spicy one. Sadly, the app would now allow such frivolity. So I had to settle for the sandwich as the creator intended. From what I hear, in the U.S. the app and kiosk allow for all kinds of whacky combos. Sadly, in Canada we're on lockdown.

Getting it back to my desk, the sandwich was hot but the fries were not. The fries got a reheat, but let's focus on the sandwich.

The potato bun was pretty, and toasted on the insides. The chicken was breast meat, and the breading was indeed crispy. I got a slight hint of pepper, which I liked. Those were the positives. 

On the flip side, I could have used more breading. And more chicken. And a spicy mayo option. It was an OK fast food chicken sandwich. But no where near the size or the crispiness of the reigning champion from Popeye's. 

It's definitely a second-tier chicken sandwich. It's the chicken sandwich you get when you don't feel like beef but your friends insisted on going to McDonald's. It's a chicken sandwich, but not a Chicken Sandwich. 

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