The Hot Chocolate Series – Sipping a Silky Smooth Nutella Hot Chocolate on a Chilly Day at Le Gourmand Cafe

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Our annual Santa Claus Parade graced us with cute and colourful floats this weekend, Christmas music is playing on the radio stations, and my mum has already harassed asked my brother and I for a list of things we’d like this Christmas (does two things really constitute a list?).  Christmas is just a little over a month away and each passing day feels more and more like a winter wonderland, sans the snow – for now.  There’s a cold nip in the air, I’m decked out in my oh-so-fashionable scarf and mitten ensemble, and instead of visions sugar plums dancing in my head, I have soup and hot chocolate partying in my tummy. 

The hot chocolate series is here!  Like I mentioned on my first Bits & Bites post, the hot chocolate series is one of two holiday and winter series I’m starting on the blog and after talking to my fellow Le Dolci icing sugar queen, Miya, today, I might squeeze in some peppermint posts in between too since I know some of you are huge fans!  I’m so excited to share this post with you all today because it involves NUTELLA!  Yes, nutella!  In hot chocolate form!  The chillier weather sounds a little more appealing now, doesn’t it?  Okay, maybe that’s a stretch, but at least us throngs of nutella fans have another nutella yummy to enjoy in the city!  I’ve made it my mission to track down the best nutella food and drink items in and around the city and I’m very pleased that this does double duty for both the hot chocolate series and the future “5 Best” nutella post I’m working on. 

Hot chocolate has really taken on life of its own, going in a gourmet drink direction with all the different culinary interpretations: white chocolate hot chocolate, Mexican hot chocolate, chili hot chocolate, the list goes on!  And let’s not forget the childhood favourite, hot chocolate with marshmallows.  All it took was a chalkboard sign sitting on the sidewalk outside a cafe to entice me get the hot chocolate series in motion, a sign that I saw while riding the streetcar no less!  I saw the words “hot chocolate” as I passed by on the streetcar, along with a list underneath.  More than one kind?!  SOLD.  This visit to Le Gourmand, located by Spadina and Richmond, has been a long time coming.  Much like Fusaro’s Kitchen, I’ve passed by Le Gourmand countless times and just never went in.  Seeing that chalkboard sign was definitely the sign that I needed to finally see what yummy surprises this cafe had inside, and c’mon, the name of the cafe is me in a nutshell!  No, not glutton!  Gourmand as in a person who takes great pleasure in food and eating.  And that would be me!

Le Gourmand is a grocery cafe (similar to Fusaro’s in cafe layout and concept) that sells packaged truffles, cookies, chocolates, pastas, canned beans and tomatoes, jams and preserves, olives, olive oils, and balsamics among other pantry staples and sweets.  They serve a full breakfast, weekend brunch, and lunch menu chock full of sandwiches, salads, egg breakfasts, breakfast burritos, and more.  I came here for the first time for the hot chocolate, but I’m telling you, I’m coming back for breakfast and lunch one of these days because their menu of sandwiches and salads made my mouth water and I’m a sucker for breakfast/brunch food.

They have a full-length display of flaky croissants, pastries, and breakfast croissant sandwiches (including bacon, egg, and cheddar) that you can order by the cash while everything else is made to order.  Their coffee menu includes espressos, macchiatos, americanos, cafe lattes, cappuccinos, cafe mochas, chai lattes, and regular roast coffee.  I’m not a coffee drinker, so aside from the occasional latte, I always go for the teas instead and Le Gourmand has these yummy sounding iced drinks that I can’t wait to try!  I saw a raspberry-lemongrass ice tea and a mojito peppermint ice tea, both of which are on my mental “to-try” list.

As much as I would loooove to get into the breakfast and lunch menu, I’m going to save the food talk for next time and just entice you all with the drinks and nutella hot chocolate.  The cafe serves 5, count ’em, FIVE different types of hot chocolate!  They have a Belgian white hot chocolate, a French 32% caramel chocolate, a Dominican 64% bittersweet chocolate, an African 85% Grand  Cru, and finally, the Italian nutella hot chocolate.  I didn’t get the prices for a large, but small hot chocolates (which are really more like mediums, in my opinions) are $2.99, tax inclusive.

The photos honestly don’t do the hot chocolate justice.  The nutella hot chocolate is DELICIOUS.  Now I know what some of you must be thinking.  You’re thinking, “if you enjoy nutella, then it’s a no-brainer that you would enjoy this hot chocolate!”  Not necessarily.  Let it be known that some places use the name and branding of nutella to sell particular products that are not actually made with nutella.  I’m not kidding.  Some will use it as a guise to make you think you’re eating nutella when in reality it’s just chocolate.  Us foodies are not dumb and it’s insulting and disheartening that some would even think to do such a thing.  Those of us who love nutella know nutella when we taste and smell it.  And this hot chocolate is nutella through and through.  

It’s silky smooth, light and airy, and just slightly frothy on top.  It’s not a heavy hot chocolate in the sense that it’ll make you feel gross afterward, but when you drink it, it feels like you’re drinking something so decadent.  The rich cocoa flavour is what hits you first when you drink it and the very distinctive aroma and taste of the hazelnut that makes nutella what it is sits on your tastebuds after and the hot chocolate is so good it makes you want to go back for more.  Which is fine because we have the whole winter ahead of us to enjoy it. 

*****

Le Gourmand is located at 438 Richmond Street West at Spadina Ave.

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The Market Is Here to Stay! Vegan Nori Rolls, Raw Pumpkin Tarts, Fresh Spring Roll Wraps and More at the CSI

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It’s official: the Lunchtime Office Markets at both Centre for Social Innovation locations are here to stay!  The office markets have been wildly successful with hungry workers and students, curious passerby, and dedicated market goers like yours truly!  What started out as a biweekly, fall market pilot project has now blossomed into a weekly extravaganza of fresh baked bread, organic and local produce, fresh farm cheeses, fair trade chocolate, and plenty of raw, vegan food lovingly made and sold by local businesses around the city and province.  I’ll be honest, I am absolutely ecstatic that the lunchtime markets are now a weekly occurrence –  twice a week no less!   

Back in October, I was hoping so much for the pilot to continue on well through the anticipated 4-week stint and for the market to become a weekly one as opposed to the biweekly one it started off as during its humble beginnings.  My wish was granted and my market-loving heart is so excited for the many future markets to come.  The market has plans to stay well into December but truthfully, I’m hoping for well into the new year 😉

Up until this point I had only purchased a few bits and bobs here and there including some bread from Nice Buns (I suggest you all try Sara’s cocoa sourdough and white bread buns) and St. Johns Bakery, as well as one of Earth & City‘s creamy coconut macaroons.  This time around though, I wanted a full out lunch and the spread didn’t disappoint!  I picked up a spring roll wrap, a vegan sushi/nori roll, and a pumpkin seasonal fruit tart, all from Earth & City‘s colourful and delicious selection of vegan food.  If you enjoy crunchy fruits and vegetables with a hint of sweetness, you need to try the spring roll wraps.  Made with apples, beets, carrots, red onions, walnuts, almonds, lemon juice, apple cider vinegar, honey dates, sesame oil, and ginger, they’re all wrapped in rice paper and fresh, raw collard greens and they are so incredibly packed with nutrition and texture and sweet flavour because you get a mixture of fruit, vegetables, protein, fibre, and all that good stuff.  You get that sweet and spikey bite from the beets and plenty of crunch from the vegetables.

Now, you’re probably wondering how in the world I managed to eat this spring roll wrap without blowing up like a blowfish because there’s raw apple in it!  There isn’t too much in it so I managed to avoid a major allergic reaction.  I think the worst I got was a tiny red welt on my lip which went away fairly quickly, but no swollen tongue and mouth, no fire in my throat, and no excruitiating pain.  I know I was taking a chance eating something with raw apple in it, but I wanted to try one so bad I threw caution to the wind and figured I could always pick the apple out if the pieces were too big or if the amount was too much to handle.  Sigh.  The things I do for food.

The pumpkin tart was so incredibly smooth and creamy and it was great because it wasn’t overladen with spice.  It tasted fresh and natural, the way it’s supposed to.  The base of Earth & City’s seasonal fruit dessert tarts are made with a raw mixture of organic rolled oats and honey dates and filled with whatever fruit is seasonal and fresh.  For the fall months, Cassandra and Lisa have been filling them with apples, pears, and pumpkin and come winter, they’ll be using storage apples and peach preserves canned during the late summer in August.  The base is chewy as opposed to crumby, cakey, or flaky, similar to a granola and honey mixture, only naturally sweeter because of the honey dates.  I have to tell you, I actually prefer this type of base because for whatever reason, tart crusts and pie crusts don’t work with my tastebuds.  There’s always this bitter, dry aftertaste that I really don’t care for, so this oat and honey date tart base works for me!

And now, my personal favourite: the nori roll!  Earth & City’s vegan sushi is made with thin seaweed sheets rolled with cooked brown rice (one of the only food items of theirs that isn’t raw!) and stuffed with a variety of vegetables.  I LOVED the sushi so much, oh my goodness.  I had shittake mushrooms, red bell pepper, and sunflower sprouts and it was refreshing, juicy, and hearty because of the thick grains of brown rice.  Next time, I am getting myself an entire nori roll log!  Each nori roll is $2 and a nori roll log is $6 which translates into 4 rolls when cut.

The markets at both locations have done really remarkable things and by remarkable I mean getting people involved and getting people engaged in the food and the market itself.  When I go to these markets, I know it seems like all I’m there for is the food and the photos, but I’m also there to learn, to observe, and to listen.  Little do people know that while I’m snapping away and ogling all the yummies, I’m also listening to the conversations that go on between those who make the food and those who make the market possible by buying from these local businesses.  

There have been conversations about ingredients, about new and upcoming products, and about suggestions to make the market even more amazing than it already is.  It’s an awesome feeling being here in the hubbub of lunch hour when people are grabbing piping hot bowls of soup left and right, snatching up buns and loaves of bread, and taking the food they’ve bought and enjoying it for lunch.  You know a market means something to people when they bother to strike up these conversations in the first place because it means they’re invested and that they want to see the market continue and do well.  I can only see it getting stronger and I can’t wait to see what’s in store come December.     

*****

The Lunchtime Markets at the Centre for Social Innovation in the Annex and on Spadina take place on Tuesdays and Wednesdays respectively from 11:30am-1pm.  The Centre for Social Innovation (Annex) is located at 720 Bathurst Street, just south of Bloor Street West and Lennox.  They also have a location on Spadina at 215 Spadina Ave., 4th floor.

Changing the Food Landscape & Our Accessibility to Food – Earth & City, Nice Buns, & Lunchtime Markets at CSI, Part II

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Imagine a world where the accessibility of healthy food isn’t an issue, isn’t a barrier to living life to the fullest.  Imagine a world where you could explore all the foodscapes you want without worrying about how, and how much it would cost, to get to those destinations.  Imagine equal opportunities to food.  It’s hard to envision, isn’t it?  We all come from different socioeconomic backgrounds and situations that either allow or inhibit our pathways to food exploration, and I don’t just mean exploration by way of eating great food, I mean seeing it, hearing about it, learning about it, and being exposed to it.  Not only is it important to theorize and critique our city’s food channels, but it’s equally important to find ways of improving these networks and to approach it from different angles.  It means pinpointing a problem, a missing link, or an oversight, and then coming up with ways to promote change for the better.

The Lunctime Markets at the Centre for Social Innovation on Spadina and in the Annex have started something wonderful because accessibility and exposure are both at the heart of the conceptual and theoretical premise behind it.  The Centre for Social Innovation Food Constellation began piloting this mini market at both CSI locations in October, and the plan was to host markets on Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 11:30am-1:30pm for at least a month to determine its level of success.  Success at what exactly, though?  Answer: bringing healthy, local food to office buildings and institutions around the city that may not have the access or connections to engage in food culture and simaltaneously widening the consumer base for local farmers and food producers around the city and province.

I’m fortunate enough to have Facebook and Twitter accounts that allow me to communicate and build relationships with businesses and other food institutions around the city in this fashion, but not everyone cares to be a part of those communities, and not everyone has the same access to technology, transportation, and infrastructure.  The whole point of the Lunctime Office Markets is to develop reciprocal relationships between producer and consumer that otherwise may not have been created, and to give people options.  These mini markets do so much.  They 1) offer delicious, healthy food to either eat right then and there or to take home, 2) present food options outside of  the large chain corporation model that isn’t always inclusive, 3) break up the monotony present in office buildings and institutions that lack food pathways, 4) strive to bring the public food sector closer to the private one, and 5) grant people with the opportunity to learn more about local food businesses, producers, and entrpreneurs.

Several particular local producers and businesses that have really shined at the CSI markets since they started back in October include are ChocoSol Traders, Earth & City, Monforte Dairy, and Nice Buns Toronto.  I was treated to another gorgeous spread of food, with everything from heirloom peppers and vegetables to cheese to lamb barley soup to cocoa sourdough buns!  Cassandra and Lisa’s Earth & City brings a mouthwatering buffet of mostly raw vegan food to every market they participate in and they change things up all the time so that there’s always new and different items to try.  Their food is fresh, organic, seasonal, and always vegan, and their menu reflects this with different vegetables and fruits used in different dishes depending on their seasonal peaks. 

There were mountains of spring roll wraps just like my last time, along with huuuge veggie tacos made with collard greens wrapped around sunflower sprouts, tomatoes, dried cumin and chili, fresh corn, some sea salt, lemon juice, and cilantro.  They had their famous flatbread sandwiches made from flax, sunflower seeds, and onions, and served open-faced with tomatoes, sunflower sprouts, raw almonds, basil and oregano, among other ingredients, as well as vegan sushi!  The platter of vegan sushi was beeeautiful (it looked like a gorgeous painting) and because I was so in awe with its prettiness, I forgot to take down the list of ingredients.  I’m working on it, so for the time being, admire the photos!      

Earth & City always brings an offering of sweets along with their savoury foods and this time, we were treated to their vanilla and chocolate coconut macaroons made with coconut flakes, organic coconut butter, organic raw agave and cacao powder from ChocoSol, vanillia extract, raw almond flour, and sea salt, their frosted brownies, and their choco-peanut butter thumbprints!  I took away a cocoa sour dough bun from Sara’s Nice Buns and one of Earth & City’s vanilla coconut macaroons to enjoy on the subway.  I ate it in two bites and it was crunchy and creamy and all sorts of delicious.  I bought the bun for my mum and she shared some with my brother and they both thoroughly enjoyed and were pleasantly surprised when I told them there was cocoa in it!  I love that the menus are always evolving and I love that all the ingredients are listed under each Earth & City dish and item.

I love this market with a passion and judging by the crowds, I’m not the only one.  The market has exceeded its 4-week pilot period and I’m hoping so much that the concept and program will continue to grow and spread throughout the city.  There’s so much wonderful food to enjoy and discover among good company and little by little, these initiatives will hopefully spur positive change when it comes to our access to healthy food.

*****

Source of information: The Skinny on Maplekeys Lunchtime Office Markets

The Lunctime Markets at the Centre for Social Innovation in the Annex and on Spadina take place on Tuesdays and Wednesdays respectively from 11:30am-1pm.  The Centre for Social Innovation (Annex) is located at 720 Bathurst Street, just south of Bloor Street West and Lennox.  They also have a location on Spadina at 215 Spadina Ave., 4th floor.

The Vegetarian Sandwich Series – Grilled Panini With Eggplant, Roasted Peppers, Artichokes and More at Fusaro’s Kitchen

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Things have been quiet on the Vegetarian Sandwich series front, so I thought it was definitely time to unleash some veggie goodness back into things!  I have my fellow Icing Sugar Queen at Le Dolci, Miya, to thank for the inspiration behind this post.  Not only have I learned so much about cupcake decorating and design during my time at Le Dolci so far, but Miya and Lisa have also introduced me to some fabulous good eats around the studio!  It’s fun bouncing ideas and recommendations off of one another; I tell Lisa and Miya all about my farmers’ market adventures, they show me another island of vegetarian sandwich paradise. 

When I saw Miya eating her veggie sandwich during lunch one day at the studio, I got curious because it looked so yummy and I asked her where she got her sandwich from.  “Fusaro’s Kitchen”, she replied, between bites.  I was quiet for about a nanosecond before the lightbulb went off and I almost literally face-palmed.  Fusaro’s Kitchen!  I knew where that was!  I had passed by it numerous times on the streetcar and walked past it another handful of times.  It was like deja vu all over again when I finally discovered Mela Cafe in Yorkville over a year ago after being in and around the neighbourhood so many times.  I felt so lame.  But I did what any dedicated foodie would do: I went and ate there.

Fusaro’s Kitchen, located on Spadina Ave. just south of Queen Street West, is an Italian eatery with hot and fresh pizzas, pastas, salads, and panini sandwiches.  I went in and instantly thought, “where have you been all my life?!”  Or rather, where in the world have I been?  Fusaro’s has a giant wall full of Italian grocery items including chocolates, wafer cookies (Quadratinis, my favourites!), sauces, olive oils, balsamics, and more. 

I know I don’t blog about it enough, but god do I ever love pasta.  Pasta is my weakness.  I love it more than rice and bread.  I suppose rice comes in at a close second when it comes to carbs and starches, but pasta makes me really happy.  Spaghetti, lasagna, linguine, macaroni, fettucine, I love it all and I would be a happy clam if I was just given a bowl of spaghtti with nothing but olive oil and herbs.  The pasta lover in me instinctively wanted to down a bowl for lunch, but I quickly remembered why I was there: to stuff my face with a delicious veggie panini.

Fusaro’s has menus dedicated to grilled panini sandwiches, pasta, salads, and dishes such as eggplant, chicken, and veal parmigiana, meatballs, and others.  Prices for pasta come in at around $10-$11, parmigiana and meatball mains at $8.50-$10.50, salads from $4.75-$10, and panini sandwiches from $7.50-$8.  Fusaro’s has two vegetarian sandwich options and I chose menu item number five (cinque), a grilled panini with grilled zucchini and eggplant, roasted peppers, artichoke hearts, baby spinach, and goat cheese.  I ordered a side salad ($2.50) to go along with it and waited in excited anticipation for my lunch.  I was so excited like you wouldn’t believe.  I know it’s “just” a sandwich, but I was excited about the veggie toppings (I rarely get to eat artichokes!  And you all know how I feel about things like roasted peppers, spinach, and goat cheese!) and I really believed this panini would be a knockout.

Grilled paninis have been touch and go with me.  They’re either a total hit or a dismal miss.  I love the idea of a grilled sandwich and when it’s executed well, it’s heaven.  When they’re a miss though, often times it’s not necessarily because they don’t taste good or that the flavour isn’t there, it’s because they’re either too small, they don’t have enough substance between the bread, or the topping combinations are ho-hum and nothing to write home about.  Sandwiches of this variety will always range from about $5-$11 depending on where you go, so a fabulous panini has to be bang for my buck and it has to have ingredients worth get excited about, especially when it’s a vegetarian sandwich.  It just doesn’t make sense to eat something with nothing but lettuce and tomato and a few strands of something else.

I loved this sandwich.  This sandwich makes me want to come to Fusaro’s every day of the week.  Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating.  But only a little.  For one thing, it wasn’t small.  This was a good-sized sandwich in both length and width, comparatible to a submarine bun from a bakery.  It wasn’t the size of a foot-long, but definitely larger than 6 inches.  I’d say it was closer to 8 inches.  The bread was so crunchy on the outside and so super soft on the inside.  The hallmark of a good sandwich is whether or not you can envision yourself eating the bread alone.  If the bread needs toppings to make it taste good, it means it isn’t.  The bread should make your mouth water all by itself and this bread does. 

And the toppings.  Oh my god.  Vegetarians rejoice.  There was so much going on in this sandwich and it was all amazingly delicious.  It was so stuffed with juicy vegetables and mouthwatering, creamy sauce.  A bed of leafy spinach sat on the bottom with strips of roasted red pepper, chunks of artichoke, eggplant, and zucchini on top with goat cheese wedged throughout.  The sauce was fantastic.  It was a cross between a cream sauce and a mayo and it was delightful.  I would eat this sandwich over and over again in a heartbeat.

Oh, and the salad!  The salad was a simple salad of greens, tomatoes, and cucumber and it was made especially delicious with an olive oil and balsamic vinaigrette and I’m telling you, their balsamic is top-notch.  I never used to like balsamic, but after an amazing meal at Southern Accent with a fabulous balsamic reduction and a great balsamic my mum bought, I’ve done a 180 and now I really enjoy it and can appreciate good balsamic.  I was so happy with everything about this meal and I can’t wait to eat here again.  Judging by the crazy line-ups here though, I’m going to have to luck out again next time.

 

*****

Fusaro’s Kitchen is located at 147 Spadina Ave., just south of Queen Street West on the east side of Spadina.  Fusaro’s Kitchen serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner and offers a breakfast menu 7 days a week.