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39. Scout'n About Pt. 1
Like Fantasyland, if your fantasy involves large buckets of mayonnaise
Early in the fall (and late in the summer) (and early in the summer) freelancing was very quiet. I took the opportunity to pay off-peak-hour visits1 to some places I’d been meaning to check out for some time. In this issue and the next, I’ll share a few of them with you.
Costco Business Centre
What Costco, with its often comically large formats, massive carts, and spartan decor and merchandising, is to normal supermarkets, the Costco Business Centre is to Costco. The packaging and the carts are larger. There is no food court (more on that later), no sampling, no tables covered in marked-down Guinness Books of Records or Paleo Instant Pot cookbooks.
The Costco Business Centre nearest to where I live is a 25-minute drive away in Scarborough, very close to my aunt and uncle’s house. As the name suggests, it’s not meant for individual consumers. (I’m sure my aunt and uncle, and cousins for that matter, are all rolling their eyes right now and thinking, “Yes, please do tell us about all of your fabulous ‘discoveries’.) Instead of Waterpiks, duvets, and Kirkland Signature sweatshirts, you’ll find sales pads, bill counters, and “Wet Floor/Plancher Mouillé” signs. It exists to serve small business like offices, convenience stores, and restaurants and other foodservice outlets. And though it’s not meant for individuals, if you have a Costco membership, you’re just as welcome to shop there.
If you’re like me and you’ve gotten a little too excited during Top Chef’s “Restaurant Wars” episodes, particularly when they go shopping for supplies, this is the place for you. There are two different brands of mayonnaise that come in 16-litre buckets! In fact, a lot of things come in massive buckets, including poutine sauce and falafel shop pickled turnips. 38-kilogram wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano are available off the rack.
Every conceivable size and shape of take-out container is for sale. There are multi-packs of Costco-branded Cambros!2 None of this is practical for a home kitchen, of course, but a little Top Chef cosplay never hurt anyone.3
That said, there are some situations in which it might be practical to shop here. If you’re a holiday baker, 20 kg of flour is less than $25, or about half what it would cost at Loblaws.4
Or if you’re making French onion soup and the recipe you’re using calls for 1 pound of Gruyere for four servings.5At a regular supermarket, that cost is potentially ruinous, but the Business Centre can sell it to you for less than half that6.
Before Halloween I visited the Business Centre to stock up on full-sized chocolate bars to give out.7 In this case, saving wasn’t my goal; I wanted to avoid having to deal with the terrible bars like Cookies and Cream that come in the variety packs sold at regular Costco. The 18-packs that contain mostly good stuff like M&Ms and Twix, but are padded out with the bars that no one likes as some kind of penalty for having good taste. (My nightmare variety pack would contain four Crispy Crunch, four Peanut Butter Cups, and ten Big Turks.)
Instead, I wanted to go straight for the retail boxes of 18 Skor Bars and 25 bags of Mini Eggs, the display boxes you’d see at the counter of a variety store. The only filler I wanted was butter toffee and milk chocolate. Partly for neighourhood child happiness reasons,8 but mostly because I don’t want to get stuck with having a bunch of leftover loser bars if turnout is low. If it means never having a Cookies and Cream bar in the house again, I will gladly drive to Scarborough every October. I may even go for a 24-pack of Mackintosh Toffee next year.
And even if you’re not saving *that* much money, it’s fun to pick up and contemplate buying a 2 kg bag of pepperoni, isn’t it? (Isn’t it?) Or maybe you can think of it as a roadside attraction whose main display is the world’s largest stack of massive colanders. It’s fun for the whole family, really.
Ordinarily, the lack of a food court and the very good $1.50 Costco hot dog would be a disappointment, but fortunately the Scarborough Business Centre is around the corner from a delicious alternative.
One block from the Business Centre, on Birchmount Ave, you’ll find Vienna Meats, which I first learned about from a report by Suresh Doss. It’s a German/Austrian/European grocery and butcher store with a lunch counter called Little Imbiss in the back.
Following the advice in Suresh’s piece, I got the schnitzel on a bun with sauerkraut, mustard, and hot peppers. The schnitzel, fresh out of the fryer, was equal parts crisp coating and flavourful, juicy meat. The kraut, which had been stewing in a steam tray, was similar to a mildly tart braised cabbage, more mellow and savoury than the vinegary stuff you might fork from jar10. The heap of potatoes cooking away on the flattop proved irresistible so I got a small container on the side. Next to the schintzel, they were bland and under-seasoned, but a sprinkling of salt at home brought them up to a very good home fry. During my next visit, in addition to another sandwich, we tried the cabbage roll, which was that day’s special. Unlike the sauerkraut, sitting out on the steam table didn’t do it any favours. Live and learn. I suspect I will have opinions about more of the menu in the future. And as much as I like the $1.49 Costco hot dog, with its excellent hit of garlic and spices, it’s nice to have another alternative so close by.
What’s on the menu…
As the weather grew colder, and root vegetables dominated the last few baskets of our Wheelbarrow Farm CSA,11 many of our dinners started feeling a lot more cozy and comforting. If you follow me on Instagram, you saw my adaptation of Martha Stewart’s creamy scalloped potatoes using turnip and celeriac as well as potatoes. There has also been some roasted delicata squash, which is always a treat. The small butternut squash we received in our final basket I was less excited about. Butternut is definitely my least favourite squash. I’m not sure if it’s the sweetness or maybe the denseness of the flesh, but I’ll take an acorn or a kabocha or a delicata over a butternut any time.
But Hetty Lui McKinnon’s recipe for Butternut Squash Congee with Chili Oil may have converted me. Or at least it has given me one way to eat butternut that I really do love. Most of the squash gets mashed together with the rice and garlic it’s simmered with, so it’s not as distinct, which is a bonus for me. And the square of kombu that’s added while the congee simmers gives it a nice umami boost as well. It’s so easy to make (just be sure to have some leftover rice handy) and so deeply satisfying that it is the newest addition to our winter dinner repertoire.
Another cookbook free to a good home
On my thrifting trips, I often find copies of cookbooks I love but already own that are in near-mint condition. It breaks my heart to leave them on the shelf, knowing that one of my subscribers could probably make good use of it. So I’ve started collecting them with the hope of giving them a deserving home. Every now and then I’ll have a new one to give away. This week it’s a must-read for anyone who wants to improve their finesse and grasp of the fundamentals of cooking.
Back in issue #5, I talked about Jacques Pepin’s Complete Techniques, a book that focuses as much on techniques that can be applied to whatever you cook as much as it does recipes. Whether it’s the right way to tie a roast (and roast it), how to carve a watermelon into a basket, or how to bake just about every classic French pastry, Complete Techniques walks you step-by-step through a very comprehensive survey of classic dishes. It’s a style of cookbook that has made a comeback recently—one that aims to give home cooks the confidence to venture further away from the recipes the book provides. But this, which combines both 1976’s La Technique and 1979’s La Methode into one volume, is one of the first of the genre.
How can it become yours? Let me know in a comment below how you came to be a subscriber of The Plate Cleaner (as well as anything else about yourself you care to share). I know a lot of you personally (or almost personally) but there are definitely many that I don’t know and would love to know more about.
The book’s lucky recipient will be decided at random at 3:00 PM (EST) on November 15th. Given this give-away is lighter than the last one, I’m less bothered by the cost of shipping it—so if you’re in Canada or the continental US, good luck! (Thanks to, and her “Come Say Hi!” thread from 2002, for giving me the idea to use this as a way to learn more about my subscribers.)
One thing that the pandemic (and remote working) ruined me for is shopping when everyone else is. 10:30 or 1:45 on an early weekday are both fantastic times.
Cambro is the leading brand of commercial food storage containers like buckets and food pans. Many home pizza makers use Cambros to ferment their dough.
“Please safely stow your knives and safely go.”
Savings do vary depending on what you’re buying of course. Flour is a particularly good deal. It looks like you have to buy around 180 eggs before you start getting ahead.
Keep “You know you could always just use less cheese,” out of your f******g mouth.
If you’re willing to buy 3 kilograms. If you just want a pound, it’s only 40% less.
Yes, we’re that house. For not much more than you’re paying for fun size bars, you could be that house too. Join us! It’s worth the reactions you get.
On the “happy neighbourhood kids” note, maybe just buy a case of 24 Mr. Bigs next year. You should see how much little kids’ eyes widen when you hand a candy bar the length of their arms.
Or Vienna Meats and Delicatessen, depending on which sign you’re looking at.
I know the vinegary stuff you fork from a jar is probably less traditional, but it’s the standard in a lot of places that should know better.
If you decide you want to sign up for a CSA with Wheelbarrow, tell them I sent you and I get a $10 credit!