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Thrown Together: Spinach Salad with Pomelo, Seared Scallops & Calamari

21 Feb

Life is busy. That is one constant in my life that I don’t see shifting anytime soon. Even without kids, it often feels like my head is spinning all day long just trying to get everything done.

So despite loving to cook, we more often than not scramble to get dinner on the table and during a busy week it can feel like more like a chore than a pleasure. Some nights a bowl of cereal looks mighty appealing when weighing the effort, time and thought that has to go into making anything else.

But we often find on those unmotivated nights that when we push ourselves to think of/create easy dishes that don’t require a ton of time or clean up, we feel so much happier in the end that we resisted pulling out the cereal boxes (or our even-worse habit of just going out to eat instead). 

Last week we had just that kind of night. Leaving work after a long and brain-draining day (followed by an even more draining yoga class), the last thing I wanted to do was stop at the grocery store and wrack my brain for what to make for dinner. But somehow I pushed myself to go.

I was in one of those no-mood-in-particular moods (read: totally indecisive) and when I called Neil to try to force him to tell me what to buy, I found him to be in exactly the same state.

There was talk of buying frozen pizza (yes, we have been known to go for that kind of lazy convenience – we are human, after all) or defaulting to our usual go-to eggs for dinner, but when I walked by the fish counter I was reminded how easy it is to quickly cook up fish and seafood, and I finally got a spark of inspiration.

I bought four scallops and a few pieces of calamari. I remembered that I had a beautifully sweet pink pomelo waiting for me at home (a bit of an obsession this time of year – they smell amazing and taste even better!) which sparked the idea of throwing together a really easy salad. I grabbed some fresh spinach – earthy spinach, sweet pomelo, meaty seafood, tangy dressing – the only thing missing, in my mind, was something pickle-y. So after grabbing a few pickled hot peppers from the antipasti bar (they were hot yet sweet) I raced to the checkout and then home.

Neil was skeptical about how this meal was going to come together (fish? fruit? pickled peppers?). But once we threw it all together – Neil in charge of searing the fish, me in charge of prepping everything else – and sat down to the first bite, we were immediately happy that we saved the cereal for breakfast and opted for this quick, beautiful, fresh and balanced home-cooked meal.

Here’s what we used:

4 large scallops

3 pieces of raw squid and a few tentacles

1 pink pomelo, peeled with the white membrane removed and flesh cut into small pieces

Handful of hot/sweet pickled peppers

1 garlic clove, minced

Juice of 1 lime

Really good, strong & fruity olive oil

Salt and pepper

Here’s how we did it:

Neil brushed the scallops and calamari with a bit of olive oil and seasoned the scallops with salt, pepper and some fennel pollen. You can use any combo of spices to season up your scallops. He heated a cast iron pan until it was pretty hot and then seared the scallops for about 2-3 min per side, then removed them and cooked the calamari in the same pan until it was cooked but not overdone (a couple minutes per side should do it). 

Meanwhile, I opened a bottle of white wine, tore into the pomelo and cut up the sweet flesh into small bite sized pieces. (**Note – the pomelo is a deliciously sweet citrus fruit that taste like a more mild version of grapefruit. It’s so refreshing and lovely but with it’s abundantly squishy/spongy peel and coarse membrane it’s a total pain in the butt to peel. Here’s a great step-by-step on how to tackle it)

I then made a quick dressing mixing the olive oil, garlic and lime juice until really well-incorporated. I chopped up the pickled peppers into small pieces and added them to the spinach. I tossed the spinach and peppers with the dressing, plated big portions onto two plates, and added the pomelo on top.

Neil cut the calamari into small bite-sized pieces and placed a handful onto each plate along with 2 scallops each.

We sat, we ate, we drank wine, we talked and enjoyed each other’s company at the end of a long day. And after we reveled in how well the flavors of this cobbled-together salad came together in the end, we thanked each other for not giving into the cereal/frozen pizza trap and opting for something unique and fresh instead. 

Do-It-Yourself Recipes from the AF Chef Competition

12 Feb

As promised, here are two recipes from the AF Chef Competition that have been adapted for all of us home cooks.

The first one is an adaptation of Daniela Molettieri’s winning dish, and the second is adapted from Cole Nicholson’s signature dish.

Filet of Veal Stuffed with Wild Mushrooms, served with Butternut Squash and Roasted Hazelnut Puree

Daniela Molettieri, Institut de tourisme et d’hôtellerie du Québec (Montréal)

Veal tenderloin is stuffed with flavourful mushrooms offering up a tender roast that is delicate enough to serve atop the sweet puree of butternut squash. Serve up a fresh mix of carrots, parsnips and beets for additional colour and vegetables for the dinner plate.

2 veal or pork tenderloins (about 2 lbs/1 kg)

1/2 cup (125 mL) butter

12 oz (375 g) fresh mixed fresh mushrooms, minced

4 shallots, minced

1 tbsp (15 mL) chopped fresh thyme leaves

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/4 tsp (1 mL) freshly ground black pepper

Pinch salt

2 1/2 cups (625 mL) veal or beef stock

1 cup (250 mL) dried mushrooms (about 1 oz/30 g)

Butternut Squash and Roasted Hazelnut Puree:

1 1/2 lbs (750 g) peeled and cubed butternut squash

1/2 cup (125 mL) butter, cubed

Pinch each salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/3 cup (75 mL) chopped toasted hazelnuts

Butternut Squash Puree: Bring squash to boil in salted water for about 20 minutes or until very soft. Drain well and return to pot. Using potato masher, mash well with butter, salt and pepper. Stir in hazelnuts. Set aside and keep warm.

In large skillet, melt 1/4 cup (60 mL) of the butter over medium high heat; cook mushrooms, shallots, thyme and garlic, stirring occasionally for about 15 minutes or until liquid has evaporated. Set aside and let cool.

Using a chef’s knife, make an incision in centre of tenderloin across the middle not cutting through to the other side. Cut along each side to open up a bit more. Stuff centres with mushroom mixture and close back up. Tie tenderloins with butcher’s twine in about 2 inch (5 cm) intervals and place seam side down on parchment paper lined baking sheet; sprinkle with half of the pepper and salt. Roast in 350 F (180 C) oven for about 45 minutes or until meat thermometer reaches 150 F (65 C) for medium rare. Let rest for at least 5 minutes before slicing.

Meanwhile, in saucepan combine dried mushrooms and stock and bring to a simmer. Let simmer for 10 minutes. Drain through fine mesh sieve and return stock to saucepan. Whisk in remaining butter and pepper.

Spread squash in centre of plate and place veal slices alongside. Spoon sauce along meat to serve.

Makes 8 servings. 

Tip: To toast hazelnuts, place in baking pan in 350 F (180 C) oven for about 8 minutes or until golden and fragrant.

Tip: You can serve the rehydrated mushrooms alongside the veal and sauce if desired.

Maple Juniper Venison Loin with Chocolate Infused Red Wine Jus, Leek and Potato Mash

Cole Nicholson, The George Brown Chefs School (Toronto)

Creamy leek mashed potatoes are the base for the slightly sweet maple flavoured venison. The taste is enhanced by the true chocolate flavour that sings in the red wine jus. A few Brussel sprouts with carrots would beautifully finish this earthy dish.

1/3 cup (75 mL) pure maple syrup

3 tbsp (45 mL) juniper berries

2 tbsp (30 mL) chopped fresh thyme leaves

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 venison loin or beef tenderloin (about 2 lbs/1 kg)

Pinch each salt and freshly ground black pepper

Chocolate Infused Red Wine Jus:

1/3 cup (75 mL) butter

1 carrot, chopped

1 onion, chopped

1 leek, white and light green part, thinly sliced

2 bay leaves

3/4 cup (175 mL) Meritage wine

2 cups (500 mL) beef stock

3 oz (90 g) 90% dark bittersweet chocolate

1 tbsp (15 mL) red wine vinegar

Leek and Potato Puree:

1/2 cup (125 mL) butter

1 leek, white and light green part, thinly sliced

1/2 cup (125 mL) chopped fresh parsley

1/4 tsp (1 mL) salt

1 1/4 lb (625 g) Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and chopped

2 tsp (10 mL) chopped fresh thyme leaves

1/2 cup (125 mL) 35% whipping cream, heated

Leek and Potato Puree: In nonstick skillet heat 1 tbsp (15 mL) of the butter over medium heat and cook leeks for about 10 minutes or until soft and golden. Stir in parsley and salt; set aside.

Bring potatoes and thyme to boil in large pot of salted water for about 20 minutes or until tender. Drain well and mash until smooth. Add cream and remaining butter and stir until smooth and creamy. Add leek and parsley mixture into potatoes and stir to combine well. Set aside and keep warm.

In large shallow dish, combine maple syrup, juniper berries, thyme and garlic. Add loin and turn to coat evenly and let marinate for 15 minutes. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Place loin on rack in roasting pan and roast in 450 F (230 C) oven for 10 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 275 F (140 C) and roast for about 1 hour or until meat thermometer reaches 145 F (63 C) for medium rare. Let stand for about 5 minutes before slicing. Slice into 1 inch (2.5 cm) thick slices.

Chocolate Infused Red Wine Jus: In saucepan melt 2 tbsp (30 mL) of the butter over medium high heat and sauté carrot, onion, leek and bay leaves, stirring occasionally for about 10 minutes or until softened and browned. Add wine and simmer for about 5 minutes or until reduced by about half. Add beef stock and bring to a simmer for 10 minutes. Strain sauce through fine mesh sieve into clean saucepan. Whisk in chocolate and remaining butter until melted and smooth. Stir in red wine vinegar.

Place potatoes in line down center of plate and set venison slices along side of potatoes. Spoon sauce around meat on the plate to serve.

Makes 8 servings.

Tip: For a crunchy seared venison, rub loin with maple sugar (available in fine food stores) and sear the loin in a hot skillet before roasting in 275 F (140 C) oven.

Tip: For a smoky addition to your potatoes, add a splash of liquid smoke when stirring together.

The Almost Famous Chef Competition – A Celebration of Young Talent!

11 Feb

I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on the idea of mentoring and just how important it is to offer help, advice and opportunities to young people within specialized industries.

I never would have been able to work my way through and up in the television business – a highly competitive creative industry – without the mentorship and support of some really great people along the way. So it’s now my personal policy to always try to help anyone who asks me for advice or guidance. I’ve been approached by a lot of young, talented and passionate people in the TV biz over the last few months who all seem to have the same frustration: how can anyone move up or get noticed if no one will even give them a chance?

I’m assuming it’s the same story across lots of different industries – especially creative ones – which is why an event like the S. Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef Competition is so important. I’m so happy to support this fantastic event, now in its tenth year, that celebrates young chefs just starting out in their careers.

It was founded in 2002 as a mentoring program that connects top culinary students with established chefs and influential media. It’s helped to launch hundreds of culinary careers and refined the skills of a new generation of chefs.

How cool is that?! Not to mention, inspiring.

Students from over 60 culinary schools across North America compete in smaller regional competitions and the winners from those land a spot in the big finals competition being held next month in Napa, and judged by nationally renowned chefs. 

I had the pleasure of attending the Canadian regional event in Toronto, where six top culinary students from different schools across Canada each had two hours to prepare their signature dish for a panel of distinguished chef judges, kitchen judges and media judges.

And at the same time, us lucky guests got to sample smaller tasting plates cooked by Calphalon’s chefs using the competitor’s original recipes. Such a treat!

George Brown Student Cole Nicholson's Maple & Juniper Seared Venison Loin

Judges had to scrutinize and assess the competitors on a few areas: creativity (plate appearance, taste, texture, and aroma), sanitation at their workstation, personality while being questioned by judges and media, and ability to perform under pressure. 

DeAille (Yee Man) Tam's Halibut marinated w/mirin & sake

At one point, I snuck into the kitchen where the student chefs were hard at work. I expected to see chaos, but the chefs were all working methodically and calmly, with focused concentration.

George Brown Chef School student DeAille (Yee Man) Tam working in the kitchen

I was also extremely impressed with how well they each faced the judges, answering their tough questions with confidence and obvious passion for their craft.

Daniela Molettieri facing the panel of judges

The winner of the night was Daniela Molettieri from Institut de tourisme et d’hôtellerie du Québec, with her beautiful signature dish of fillet of veal stuffed with wild mushrooms served with butternut squash puree. She used milk-fed veal from Quebec and locally grown vegetables, and drizzled the meat with foie gras sauce.

The judges kept saying how impressed they were with a unique cooking technique she used.  I took the opportunity to ask her about it afterwards. She told me that she wrapped the veal in tin foil and submerged the package directly into the flame on a burner for about six minutes, allowing the meat to cook evenly all the way around while staying pink in the centre, much like cooking sous vide. (Apologies to Daniela if I didn’t describe it exactly right!)

Daniela's Winning Dish at the AF Chef Competition

Daniela was confident, well spoken and knowledgeable while still being very humble. The judges asked her why she chose to work at two different stations on opposite sides of the large kitchen, creating more stress for herself. She responded by saying she likes a good challenge. My kind of gal!

Furthering the importance of mentorship, upon winning she said “I owe a lot of my success this evening to Chef Côté, my ITHQ advisor…He spent a lot of time helping me prepare for this competition and his patience really paid off.”

The crowd got to choose a People’s Choice winner, which was given to Anne-Marie Plourde, a student at École hôtelière de la Capitale. She won the hearts of everyone in attendance with her signature dish of Roasted Duck Breast and Gingerbread-Crusted Foie Gras. Our tasting portion of this was so flavorful and delicious.

Anne-Marie Plourde’s Roasted Duck Breast & Gingerbread Crusted Foie Gras

Congratulations to the chefs, who all did a great job competing that night. And best of luck to Daniela, who will be representing Canada at the finals in Napa. You can check out the AF Facebook page for more info and to find out the results!

And for an added treat, I’m going to post two recipes from the competition that have been adapted for all you home cooks. Stay tuned for those, coming up tomorrow…

Creamy Whole Wheat Pasta with Smoked Salmon & Chives

7 Feb

Smoked salmon has become a bit of a staple in our house. Aside from being one of my favorite brunch foods (eaten on a toasted Montreal bagel with cream cheese, lemon & capers, of course) it’s a great ingredient to keep on hand in your freezer for a really quick weeknight meal.

We usually default to this quickly assembled dinner, but last week we thought we’d try something a little different but equally fast and simple.

We made this pasta up as we went along, grabbing a handful of ingredients that felt like obvious companions to the smoked salmon. The soft, salty/smoky salmon worked so nicely with the slight tang of the Dijon, the sweetness of the caramelized fennel and shallot, and the fresh hint of onion from the chives. The nuttiness of the whole wheat pasta really made a difference, too.

I usually squirm when Neil suggests adding cream to a dish we cook at home, since I’ve been conditioned to think that cream sauces are evil and will go directly to my thighs without being ‘worth it’. But as Neil pointed out, a little goes a long way in this pasta. You don’t need to create a full-on sauce, dousing the pasta in cream. Just use enough to lightly coat the bottom of the pan, and you won’t be riddled with the kind of guilt that the likes of fettuccini alfredo inevitably leave behind. 

Creamy Whole Wheat Pasta with Smoked Salmon & Chives 

Whole wheat pasta, cooked al dente and strained

1 pkg smoked salmon, chopped into small bite sized pieces

2 shallots, chopped

Half a bulb of fennel, chopped

Handful of fresh chives, chopped

1 tbsp Dijon mustard

Approx ½ cup half-and-half cream

Splash of white wine

Olive oil

Salt and pepper

Heat olive oil in a large pan on medium heat. Sauté fennel and shallot until they’re soft and caramelized. Season with salt and pepper. 

Add some white wine and cook for another few minutes. Mix in the Dijon mustard and half of your chopped chives, keeping the rest to garnish.

Reduce the heat to low, add in the cream and mix. To be honest, we eyeballed the cream (with me on the sidelines reminding Neil not to add too much!) but probably ended up with just about a half a cup. Enough to coat the pasta but the goal is not to create a full-blown sauce. Make sure you’re heat is down on low so the cream doesn’t curdle.

Add in your cooked pasta while it’s still warm. Toss in the pan to coat the pasta evenly with the sauce. Add in the smoked salmon at the last minute – you don’t want to cook it but you want to incorporate it. 

Serve sprinkled with the rest of the chives. We drizzled our plates with some lemon-infused olive oil, but a little squeeze of fresh lemon juice would be perfect too. 

Seared Tuna Wraps with Mango, Asian Slaw & Creamy Sriracha Sauce

15 Jan

A few weeks ago Neil and I stopped into a mid-range restaurant to grab a quick weeknight dinner. It wasn’t anywhere fancy (and it shall remain nameless) but it was nice enough to expect that the $15-$26 mains should come to the table well-cooked, well-seasoned and well, in restaurant-quality shape. When the $16 tuna wrap promising “seared ahi tuna, asian slaw & wasabi aioli” showed up, we squinted in an attempt to find the scarce pieces of cold tuna stuffed inside the oversized, overly-bready wrap, could barely detect any Asian flavors in the ‘slaw’, and couldn’t taste or see even a hint of wasabi aioli. We were peeved. Where was the flavor? The effort? The tuna?!

My tolerance for mediocre restaurant food is reaching new lows.

I looked at Neil and said “for WAY less than $16 bucks, we could make this ourselves at home and actually do it right”.

So we did.  With a few twists. And it was fabulous.

Here’s a surprisingly easy weeknight do-it-yourself meal that’s full of flavor and tastes even better the next day wrapped up for a satisfying lunch.

Seared Tuna Wraps with Mango, Asian Slaw & Creamy Sriracha Sauce 

For the Asian Slaw:

Cabbage & carrot, shredded (or for super ease use a packaged pre-chopped slaw)

Grated ginger

2 green onions, chopped

Juice of half a lime

A few splashes of Mirin or rice wine vinegar

A few splashes of soy sauce

A couple of small splashes of sesame oil

Pepper

Toss all the ingredients together in a bowl and set aside.

Creamy Sriracha Sauce:

2 Tbsp plain yogurt

1 Tbsp low fat mayo

Chives, chopped

Zest of half a lime

Juice of half a lime or lemon

A few squirts of Sriracha – start with small amount and keep adding to adjust the level of heat to your taste

Sea salt to taste

Mix the first 5 ingredients together in a small bowl. Add in a few small squirts of sriracha at a time, starting with a small amount and adjusting the level of heat to your taste. Season with sea salt. Set aside.

For the Seared Tuna:

1 tuna steak – big enough for two people to share

Canola oil

Ground pepper & sea salt

Rub the tuna with a bit of canola oil and a little bit of salt on both sides. Add a good amount of pepper to coat both sides.

Heat pan on medium-high heat until it’s really hot and then add the tuna to sear it. Cook for approx 2-2.5 min a side and remove from heat promptly so it doesn’t overcook or cook through. Let it rest for a few minutes and then slice into it. It should be rare on the inside. Slice into thin strips.

Slice one whole mango into thin strips, squeeze the juice of one lime overtop and set aside.

Warm a few whole-wheat tortillas.

Garnishes:

Lime Wedges

Chopped cilantro (*which we didn’t have, but wished we did. It would have been the perfect finishing touch)

Place a good amount of Asian slaw onto each tortilla, top with seared tuna slices, mango & creamy sriracha sauce. Fold & eat! 

Curried Cauliflower & Chickpea Stew with Kale

30 Oct

It’s crazy how quickly the seasons change. Every year at the start of fall it feels like the weather turns way too quickly and all of the sudden flip flops get replaced with boots, tank tops with cozy sweaters. I always spend a good few weeks in denial, not wanting to say goodbye to the warmth of summer.

And then somehow you reach a point when it finally feels good to welcome fall and the crispness in the air is familiar and maybe even comforting. I made this stew on one such night a few weeks back. It was the day I succumbed & fully welcomed the changing leaves, the need to grab a scarf in the morning and that feeing that there’s no turning back – winter is on its way.

It was the kind of fall evening where it felt really good to be at home, listening to good music, cooking something hot and satisfying in my kitchen.

I was craving something healthy but rich and this stew did the trick. It’s the kind of meal that warms you from the inside out.

I used a Malaysian curry powder blend that I recently bought at Jean’s Vegetarian Kitchen on Danforth (I’m obsessed with their Malaysian Curry Eggplant) and it had the perfect balance of flavors for this recipe. But you can of course make your own blend pretty easily. I would recommend using a mix of dried spices instead of just straight up curry powder because you need that depth of flavor.

The Malaysian curry blend that I used has a really nice kick to it without being overly spicy. It’s a mix of: coriander, cumin, fennel, pepper, cayenne, turmeric, anise, ginger, garlic, cinnamon, mustard seed, cloves, fenugreek & cardamom.

If you don’t have all of those ingredients, I suggest mixing the more common ones: yellow curry powder, garlic or onion powder, ground fennel and cumin, cayenne, turmeric, cinnamon, powdered mustard.

This is the kind of dish that you can’t really screw up. Adjust to your tastes.

Curried Cauliflower & Chickpea Stew with Kale

1 Medium onion, chopped

1 shallot, chopped

2 carrots, peeled and chopped

1 head cauliflower, chopped into medium sized florets

1 bunch of black kale, chopped

1 can chickpeas, drained

1 can coconut milk (regular or light)

1 tin diced tomatoes (I only had whole ones, so I chopped them myself)

5 tsp curry blend (I used Malaysian curry powder and they were heaping tsp’s)

2 tbsp olive oil

Salt and pepper

Heat olive oil on high, add onions and shallot, sauté until brown (about 8 min).

Add the curry powder and sauté with onions for a minute. Add carrots, cauliflower and chickpeas and mix well. Season with a bit of salt.

Add in tomatoes with a bit of the juice and coconut milk. Add in the chopped kale.

Bring to a boil and then reduce heat to low. Cover and let simmer for 20 minutes to a half hour or more. Season with salt and pepper and serve bubbling hot.

Makes great lunch leftovers. I even ate mine cold for lunch the next day and it was delicious.

Feasting with Friends: An Unforgettable Meal by Massimo Bruno

6 Sep

I’m a pretty sentimental person, with family and friends being at the top of my priority list. So when Neil planned a night where I could spend quality time with family & friends, feast on amazing food that held sentimental value and I didn’t have to clean up a single thing – it resulted in one memorable night. And major husband points for a creative birthday gift to celebrate my 32nd year.

Last summer Neil and I travelled to Italy for a friend’s wedding and our own belated honeymoon. We visited Rome, Florence, the Tuscan countryside, and our favorite place of all, Bologna. Needless to say, we feasted our way through each region, leaving no stone unturned when it came to trying the special food items that each place had to offer.

That’s where the sentimental part of our recent Italian feast came into play.

Massimo Bruno has been a well-known chef in Toronto for years and we’d wanted to try his ‘Italian Supper Club’ dinners that he holds monthly, but never seemed to get around to it. Little did I know, Neil had been planning a special Massimo night all our own. He emailed back and forth with Massimo, trying to create the perfect menu that would take me on a trip down memory lane, right back to our Italian getaway. And best of all, we would be able to share some of the things we fell in love with in Italy, with the people that we love back at home.

Massimo cooks authentic homestyle Italian food, and explores different regions of his native Italy through cooking the dishes that are unique to each area. He shares not just the foods and methods from each region, but also the stories that go along with them. He cooks out of his kitchen studio in a beautiful loft in the city, where guests lounge at one long candle-lit table as Massimo and his team cook the meal. The feeling is friendly, rustic, casual, and Massimo himself adds to the atmosphere; sharing stories with everyone, taking the time to explain what’s about to be served, where it came from and most importantly, why.

I was almost brought to tears when I got a glimpse of the menu that Neil and Massimo had put together for me. Massimo had even attempted a few new dishes for the first time ever, on Neil’s request. His passion really came through as he talked about each item on the menu, and his stories coupled with the amazing food transported everyone to Italy that night. Here’s a taste of my special meal…

The night started off with Massimo’s Focaccia Barese, which was probably one of the best focaccia’s I’ve ever had. Thankfully he warned us not to fill up on it, because I probably could have eaten an entire plate of the doughey, salty, tomatoe-ey goodness.

But we needed to save room for the copious amounts of food that came next.

The antipasti course could have been a perfect meal on its own: Burrata imported from Italy (flown in once a week and available at Maselli’s on Danforth!), Prosciutto di Parma & wild boar prosciutto with gorgeous roasted figs.

“Trota della nera” – Trout with seasoned breadcrumbs. Massimo kept telling us how incredibly simple this dish was, but everyone was raving about it. The flavors were bursting out of the lemony breadcrumbs and the tender fish fell apart with every forkful.

I didn’t get a good picture of the fried zucchini blossoms stuffed with ricotta, but Massimo’s version was just as delicious as the ones we ate almost daily on our trip to Italy. He made a beautiful salad of breaded oyster mushrooms on arugula, which complemented the other antipasti so perfectly.

Next came homemade pasta – Pappardelle al Cinghiale, aka: wild boar ragout. Neil and I had had an unforgettable meal of simple stewed wild boar at the agritourismo where we stayed in the Tuscan countryside, and Massimo’s pasta brought me right back to that place.

If one pasta wasn’t enough, Massimo also made a dish inspired by our most memorable meal in Bologna, at a family-owned restaurant just off the beaten path called Pape Re. We had ordered a pasta with homemade pistachio pesto topped with crispy prosciutto and the flavor was so unique and special that I talked about it for months. Massimo’s Bucatini al pesto di pistacchi was prepared differently, but I so appreciated that he had researched the dish and created his own from scratch for the very first time. His was absolutely amazing, another favorite of the group.

Then came fried artichokes in tomato sauce, Spigola al sale – fish cooked in salt crust – and perfectly-cooked zucchini with cherry tomatoes.  You know you’re eating authentic Italian food made with love when something as simple as zucchini and tomatoes takes your breath away with every bite.

We were already full when the smell of hot butter came wafting through the air, followed by the sound of saltimbocca (veal with prosciutto & sage) frying in it. The dish was beautiful and so delicious that we all somehow found that last bit of room when it came to the table.

The grand finale and probably the most meaningful dish of all was dessert: Schiacciata all’Uva – sweet focaccia with grapes. At that same agriturismo in Tuscany, on a lovely evening overlooking the hills and olive groves, Neil and I had this delicious and interesting dessert. The family who own and operate the agritourismo make wine and olive oil, so their homemade version used small wine grapes folded into the sweet layers of dough. Massimo used regular grapes and his version was as amazing as I had hoped. I had been talking about this dessert since our trip and have always wanted to try making it. Massimo nailed it. Sweet, slightly crunchy, doughey and moist, it was the most amazing ending to a seriously unforgettable feast.

There really is nothing like great food & wine coupled with great friends, conversation and the warmth of the happy memories that go along with it all.

And I’m so lucky to have a husband who ‘gets’ it and knows how important those simple things are that mean so much. 

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