[Friday May 22, 2009: I feel like the kid who comes to school, all big-eyed and sorry, with the story "the dog ate my homework."

I wish it wasn't so but here I am, empty-handed, with little excuse but to say that this last week has run right over me like a stampede of very-heavy animals. (See? I can't even come up with a worthwhile simile.)

Give me a couple of days and I'll be back. Until then, here's what we've been cooking - recipes from Bobby Flay's Burgers, Fries and Shakes. That's his barbecue sauce in the photo.

Have a wonderful weekend.

Thursday, May 28, 2009: All better now. Where were we? Ahh, Mr. Flay. Here we go.]

I have been overruled. Vetoed. If our house was an island, I'd surely be the one voted off of it.

Let me explain. I was offered the opportunity to review Bobby Flay's latest book, Bobby Flay's Burgers, Fries and Shakes (Clarkson Potter, 2009, written with Stephanie Banyas and Sally Jackson). While I am not familiar with Mr. Flay's food, I accepted immediately with others' interests in mind.

My husband l-o-v-e-s a good burger, especially paired with a mound of crisper than crisp fries - the sort that crackle when tumbled out on a plate. Our three-year-old son Benjamin has inherited this burger-loving gene, and along with it that same sincere love of fries. So I could not, with good Mummy-Wife conscience, turn down the offer. The problem was, as much as I do enjoy the subject matter, I do not know if I am all that keen on this book. These two though, cannot praise it enough.

But, I am getting ahead of myself. Rewind to a few weeks ago.

With the Victoria Day holiday just ahead of us, the long weekend would be the perfect opportunity to peruse the Mr. Flay's offerings. Nothing seemed better to flip through, and cook from, as you laze about around the backyard grill in the late-afternoon sun.

But that is where we ran into trouble. While I am ardent in my desire to eat these burgers, fries and milkshakes, I am not all that inclined to make them. Reading this book was like looking over the menu of a really, really good diner. The photographs by Ben Fink are in-your-face beauty closeups; burgers are lavishly-treated with toppings, you can see the grains of salt on the fries, and shakes look so good you want to lick the page.

My problem was, just like diner food, I want to go out for such meals with someone else behind the grill. I rarely want to cook them at home. As much as a burger piled high with golden onion rings, bacon, melted smoked cheddar and homemade barbecue sauce would be delicious (Flay's Cheyenne Burger), it is the something I would like to be served - preferably with his Blackberry Cheesecake Milkshake alongside. (Smart man, Mr. Flay, as he recently opened Bobby's Burger Place, with recipes from the book on the menu.)

Speaking of the barbecue sauce, after trying Flay's blend of ketchup, molasses, honey, brown sugar and spice, Benjamin christened the sauce "spicy ketchup", and I am inclined to agree with his description. The barbecue sauce is a good condiment, and is Ben's new favourite dip. But as far as an all-purpose grilling sauce goes it lacks the deeply sweet tones, the almost-sticky quality I look for in a barbecue sauce. It was simply too tomato-y for our tastes.

Another issue with this recipe was the instruction to purée the sauce in a food processor. I do not know if it is that Flay uses a vastly-superior appliance, but my Cuisinart was unable to smooth out the mixture to a classic barbecue sauce consistency. After multiple blitzes in the food processor, you could still detect distinct bits of onion and garlic, swimming in the liquid. A quick buzz with the immersion blender did the trick.

The burgers are good; really good, in fact. But as Flay prefers a simple burger recipe allowing the flavour of the beef to stand front and centre, with most variations using a standard patty recipe. After that's established, it really is just about toppings, with everything from the Napa Valley Burger (with Meyer Lemon-Honey Mustard) to the Arthur Avenue Burger (FraDiavolo Ketchup, FontinaFricos) to the Patty Melt Burger (Red Wine Onion Relish, melted Gruyère cheese, scratch-made Pickled Jalepeños). There are chicken, turkey and fish burgers, but these are obviously second string - the beef burgers are the stars.

The Fries chapter includes his "perfect" recipe, a Bistro twist (parsley, garlic), fat Steak Fries, and then versions using alternative starches like plantains and sweet potatoes. The section is rounded out by mention of onion rings, including the truly-addictive Shoestring Onion Rings; whisper-thin, buttermilk-bathed beauties fried to golden deliciousness.

The Condiments and Seasonings chapter was a surprise. It is a thoughtful inclusion, and in my opinion, the hidden gem of the book. The Homemade Dill Pickles or Horseradish Mustard Mayonnaise just two of the of simple recipes that would make any backyard cookout immediately special.

As anyone who knows me would surely suspect, the Milkshake chapter was far and away the highlight of the book for me. These recipes were the stuff of childhood dream, truly decadent desserts masquerading as drinks. The Toasted Marshmallow Milkshake is like drinking the campfire treat, but creamier. The Dark Chocolate Milkshake with "Fluffy" Coconut Cream is a parfait-style showstopper, while the Blueberry-Pomegranate Milkshake is a tangy take on the traditional shake.

Bobby Flay's Burgers, Fries and Shake is a good book, a novelty for summertime reading, and it does offer up some inspiration for creative burgers. This is not everyday food, and in my mind, not once-a-week food. The recipes often verge on more labor-intensive than I prefer for a casual weekend meal, requiring multiple garnishes and some last-minute fuss. And while the milkshakes are delicious, they are a rare indulgence. It is the sort of cookbook I would pull out for if I was cooking for a true burger lover and wanted to treat them to something special. A signature burger for Dad on Father's Day perhaps?

That said, I do appreciate Mr. Flay's attention to detail, with each chapter beginning with a thorough discussion on ingredients, technique and his personal preferences. There is no doubt that Flay is passionate about the subject matter. And while I am just not all that passionate about the book, I am surely in the minority as my husband and eldest would be all-too-happy to tell you. Maybe its because I am the one doing the cooking.

Recipes

Cuban Style Burgers ( Miami burgers in the book)

Arthur Avenue Burger (video)

Bobby's Crunchbuger (video)

Tuna Burger with Pineapple-Mustard Glaze and Green Chile Pickle Relish (not exactly as in the book, but very close)

Basic Vanilla Milkshake (not exactly as in the book, but again very close)

In the foreground, Artichoke Asiago Squares. All photos courtesy of Irene Powell.

On a cold October evening, nothing could have been more welcoming than the sight of Anna Olson's new shop, Olson Foods at Ravine; tucked amongst the vineyards of St. David's, Ontario, the windows of the farmhouse-styled store shone warmly as we drove up the winding gravel driveway.

Though a celebration of Anna Olson's new book,In the Kitchen with Anna, (Whitecap Books, 2008) the evening was also felt to be the formal debut of the three-month-old shop, the second owned by the Food Network star and her husband (in this case also in partnership with Ravine Winery). It specializes in baked goods, fine foods and condiments, artisinal Canadian cheeses, select cookware items and boasts a small café-styled menu to be enjoyed on site, or for takeaway.

The store is expansive without feeling cavernous. The vaulted ceiling with glossy exposed beams embody the rustic elegance that seems the hallmark of Olson Foods at Ravine. A generous harvest table greeted us on arrival, tastefully adorned with seasonal flowers and an array of savoury nibbles from the book, including wedges of Provençal Tarts and slices of Brandied Pork Terrine, studded with cranberries and pistachios.

To one side of the room the bakery and deli beckons; servers are standing at the ready, offering up steaming bowls of Celery Soup with Blue Cheese. The on-site wood fired oven produced the gloriously-burnished roasted chicken on display, and is to thank for the house-made breads piled generously on the counter. To the other side of the room, backed by displays of oils, vinegars and jams, delicate cake stands present a trio of Mocha Hazelnut Cheesecakes. At their feet are platters of Lemon Cheesecake Mousse Tarts and perfectly-cut rows of Chocolate Almond Toffee Bars.

Taking it all in, we wandered the shop; handcrafted cutting boards from Stratford, Ontario were of particular interest, as were the array of salts and aromatic teas. Rainbow-hued enamelled cookware gleamed brightly from the shelves.

A wonderful compliment to the lakeside location of the original Olson's location in Port Dalhousie, St. Catharines, Ontario, Olson Foods at Ravine feels earthy and lush; well-placed in Niagara's wine region, it is a wonderful addition to the area, and is surely to become a favourite for locals and visitors alike.

Almost too lovely to eat, Mocha Hazelnut Cheesecakes.

With two bustling stores, the second season of her highly-successful new show Fresh recently wrapped up, and a new book on shelves, Anna Olson has a lot going on. I was able to grab a moment of her time to chat about food, inspiration and seasonal tastes.

seven spoons: Your new show has taken you out of a white studio space into the vibrant colours of your own home; with that, you have shifted your focus from desserts alone to foods for all occasions. How have you taken to the change?

Anna Olson: I'd have to say that I'm going back to my roots; that is, I started my culinary career not as a pastry chef, but as a savoury cook. Developing my pastry skills happened about six years after [I started] cooking. I have been a chef for almost 15 years - oops! Dating myself.

I feel this latest book shows a bit more of my complete self, not just the baker in me.

7S: Your book, In the Kitchen with Anna, follows this move to homey, accessible takes on the classics. How did you approach writing it?

AO: Fortunately the approach to writing this latest book was not a stretch of the imagination. I did not have to reach far for motivation; in fact, I took a step back to see what dishes and flavour combinations I was reaching for instinctively. I find, to get through my hectic days, I was cooking not just comfort food, but dishes that spoke to classic flavour combinations - yet with a little kick or something different to keep me interested, both in cooking and in eating.

7S: What would you consider your major influences in the kitchen? Any culinary heroes?

AO: I have the greatest admiration for chef Michael Olson, my husband. Before I knew him personally, I came to the Niagara Region to work with him professionally; I [had] admired, and still do, his commitment to using local, seasonal ingredients.

7S: With your two stores, Olson Foods at Port and the new Olson Foods at Ravine, what trends are you seeing with customers tastes?

AO: I find that customers aren't necessarily seeking exotic high-end ingredients. They want products that have a story or personal connection, and without fail it has to be a quality product. With food safety becoming a more publicized issue, knowing where your food comes from is important.

7S: Are there any particular ingredients or products that are particularly inspiring to you right now?

AO: Being seasonally motivated, I am happy as can be to cook with pumpkin, squash, onions, sage and rosemary. I do a roast every weekend in the autumn and I also eat a lot more cheese than I do any other time of year.

7S: Often you will hear chefs and cooks separate what they cook professionally, and what they cook in their own kitchen. Is that the case with you, and what is your go-to recipe at home?

AO: Since the two stores feature a great deal of familiar flavours and dishes, I'm not seeking to separate myself from them. In the day when I worked fine dining, after a service of cooking lobster, foie gras and making elaborate sauces, I would need to break away. I think that, like many chefs, the roasted chicken Sunday supper is the epitome of the perfect meal.

7S: And finally, three questions in one. It would be remiss not to ask you about sweets, as you have become so famous for your decadent creations. What is your favourite celebratory dessert? Your favourite comfort dessert? Your favourite guilty pleasure?

AO: Ah, I can never give a straight answer to that "favourite" question. Yes, I am seasonally motivated, so that shapes my favourites; I wouldn't dream of making a strawberry tart in October. But, I am very much craving-motivated when it comes to sweets ... when I want chocolate, I can think of nothing else until I get my chocolate!! And sometimes that's how the best recipes happen - by pure craving!

My thanks to Anna Olson for taking the time to speak with me; please look out for my thoughts on In the Kitchen with Anna: New Ways with the Classics early next week.

From top; freshly-baked Museli Bread, delicate bites of Lemon Cheesecake Mousse, and (with Brandied Pork Terrine in the background) chef Anna Olson's new book.