Corn Pops, Count Chocula, Kraft Dinner, Mr. Noodle, Pop Tarts, Jell-O, Eggo Waffles. Surely you’ve had an experience with at least one of these foods, and the mere mention of it brings back (mostly) fond memories. Or at least vivid memories of eating dry cereal from the box. With your hands.
A conversation about easy-to-heat, pre-packaged retro foods from our distant and not-so-distant past sparked an idea to get local chefs to play up the simple meals we’re used to serving straight from the package. Back in my day, you actually had to cook Kraft Dinner. It didn’t come with its own bowl ready for the microwave. It actually took 7-8 minutes to cook. On the stove. It involved stirring. It was complicated.
There are no rules and it’s not a competition. Canoe’s chef de cuisine, John Horne, was an eager participant. Considered one of the best restaurants (and with views from the 54th floor of the TD building) in Toronto, many guests don’t blink at a $45 main course from Canoe. John’s ghetto food: Captain High Liner frozen fish sticks. We both recall fondly eating them as kids and are not at all turned off by them as adults. Then I read the nutritional information and decided it was better not to fry up the entire box.
John’s personal guilty pleasures: candy. Hot lips, Swedish fish and sour patch kids.
A chef with many ideas, John made two dishes, the first with an apple and cabbage slaw and crispy Kennebec potatoes (a fancy take on the French fries for fish and chips). A bright green apple mustard that tastes like Jolly Ranchers candy is dotted on the plate. John admits he likes the freshness of the apples with the fried fish. He says his biggest challenge was trying to stay away from pairing ketchup with the fish sticks. Instead of ketchup, he adds a sweet chili sauce and some kimchi — basically like another coleslaw — the spicy flavours playing off the sweet and sour ones. Daisy capers and apple gastrique (sweet little cubes of apple in vinegar and sugar) add more sweet and sour elements. I tell him that when I was a teenager, I was so lazy I would microwave the fish sticks and eat them soggy. He looks disappointed in me.
Clearly not satisfied with his first dish, chef makes a second that focuses on sweet Ontario corn. The sweet and earthy in-season corn dresses the plate of fish sticks and more fancy fries along with pickled chanterelle mushrooms (not in season much longer). “The chanterelles are acidic but earthy like the corn.” Curry spiced yogurt cuts through some of the fattiness of the fried fish; John says he likes curry and corn together. He is much happier with the second dish, saying that it’s more seasonal.
The fish sticks are left whole “to preserve the integrity of the frozen fish sticks,” Chef Horne says jokingly. Captain High Liner never saw so much integrity associated with his catch.