Tag Archives: Italian

A Taste of Valentine’s Day at Fabbrica

8 Feb
Mark McEwan Fabbrica Toronto

Dining with Mark McEwan at Fabbrica

Jenny and I aren’t huge fans of Valentine’s Day. We rarely mark the occasion with cards or flowers, and definitely steer clear of restaurants offering (usually overpriced) Valentine’s Day-themed prix fixe menus.

So, when I was invited to have dinner with chef Mark McEwan at his newest Toronto restaurant, Fabbrica, to preview the kitchen’s Valentine’s Day menu, I was initially skeptical. But, then again, it’s not every day the chance comes along to sit and break bread with a man who is one of Toronto’s best-known chefs and a host of Top Chef Canada on the Food Network.

As we sat and read over the special Valentine’s Day menu that will be available to Fabbrica diners between February 14 and 17, McEwan put me at ease by saying that he’s not a fan of Valentine’s Day menus built around “cheese” like heart-shaped food and chocolate incorporated into each dish for no good reason. The dishes on the $55 prix fixe ($85 with wine pairings) were developed around the same ethos McEwan says Fabbrica’s regular menu is built: good, honest Italian food done right.

Veal Mark McEwan Fabbrica

Seared veal tenderloin on braised brisket raviolo and carrot-parsnip puree. A great dish!

Since graduating from culinary school at George Brown College in 1979, McEwan has been at the forefront of Toronto’s dining scene, owning and/or running the kitchen at some of the city’s most popular restaurants and hotels—many of which count wealthy residents and visiting movie stars as frequent diners.

But despite the flashy clientele, McEwan says he’s always made sure his menus focused on the classics rather than what’s trendy. And he thinks that’s what diners want. Even in the food trends that have taken Toronto by storm over the past year or two—think tacos, Southern barbecue and rustic Italian—McEwan says the key elements are authenticity and time-honoured technique.

McEwan Fabbrica Budino

And for dessert, caramel budino topped with espresso gelato

McEwan says that even the projects that have brought him into the national spotlight—his Food Network shows The Heat and Top Chef Canada—have been real and honest. Of the former, which followed him as he worked to open his eponymous, upscale Toronto grocery store, McEwan, he says the show was an honest portrayal of the experience, giving viewers a glimpse at the opening of a business and the mistakes made along the way. And he says he’s enjoyed working on Top Chef Canada because, unlike some other food-based reality shows, this one is focused on good cooking and passionate chefs; “It’s not about a basket of weird ingredients,” he says, referring to Chopped—a show I admitted to him that I’m a pretty devoted fan of.

Like his restaurants, there’s a definite polish to Mark McEwan, a sense that he’s always ready to perform. But after spending a couple hours with him, talking about food, sports (he’s a Buffalo native and, like me, a long-suffering Bills fan) and ideas for Toronto’s future (he’s a big believer in the current plan for a downtown casino), I was definitely left with a feeling of authenticity in both the man and his food.

Celebrating Canadian Beef with Involtini

16 Feb

involtini beef prosciutto

I love meat, though – thanks in large part to Jenny’s influence – I’ve been eating much less of it over the past couple of years than I ever had previously (just check out our Recipes page to see the ratio of vegetarian-friendly dishes to meat-based ones!) 

Last month, I decided to challenge myself to give up meat entirely for 30 days. I was successful, minus a couple of cheat meals I allowed myself because they were special occasions. Over the course of the month, I started to look at restaurant menus differently – instead of automatically ordering the meatiest thing available, I branched out and tried some things I normally might not have. The end result of all this challenge and experimentation is that I’m left thinking about meat in a different way – a way I’d already knew instinctively before, but didn’t always practice; that is, that our access to high-quality meat is something to be celebrated and appreciated, and that the consumption of meat should be seen as an occasion that is likewise celebrated and appreciated. By that, I don’t mean that everyone should necessarily only eat meat on birthdays and holidays, or once a week at Sunday dinners. But those of us who do consume meat should make sure that what we’re eating has been treated as it should: instead of eating any old steak, we should be seeking out the best quality product we can find – from trusted sources who can explain where and how the meat was produced – and cooking it in a way that draws out its full flavour.
 
When I read that Canadian Beef – the association responsible for the support and promotion of Canadian beef and its producers – was funding three scholarships to the Eat, Write, Retreat food blogging conference in Washington, D.C., I decided to put up this post as my entry. Not only would I love the chance to attend a conference that looks like it has a great lineup of learning and networking opportunities, but I also liked that entrants were asked to write about one of their favorite memories involving Canadian beef, or a favorite beef dish.
 
Involtini has to be one of my favorite beef dishes, in part because its preparation incorporates some of the ideas I mentioned above. To me, involtini is a perfect example of what Italian cooking should be, as well as of how I think meat should be enjoyed. It’s about simple, fresh ingredients, combined and cooked gently to allow the flavours to really come together. And it’s really an “occasion” meal: since it takes so long to prepare properly, it’s typically something Italians will make when they come together to celebrate and eat. Even if you’re making involtini to enjoy with just one other person, as was the case for Jenny and I with the version here, the process of cooking, waiting, smelling and anticipating the dish means you really take the time to enjoy what you’re eating and who you’re eating it with.
 
Here’s my favorite beef dish. What’s yours?
 
Involtini with prosciutto, spinach and cheese
 
8 veal or beef cutlets, as thin as possible
8 thin slices of prosciutto
16-24 thin slices of parmesan or pecorino cheese
A large handful of spinach leaves
1 large handful of parsley, chopped
1 large handful of basil, chopped
Zest of 1 lemon
1 or 2 large carrots, diced
1 onion, diced
1 garlic clove, minced
1 bottle of strained tomatoes (a.k.a., “passata”)
 
Lay cutlets on a work surface. Lay a slice of prosciutto lengthwise on each cutlet, then top the prosciutto with 4 or 5 spinach leaves, followed by two or three slices of cheese, and fairly generous sprinklings of chopped parsley, basil and lemon zest. Roll up cutlets from one end to the other, fairly tightly, and place a toothpick in each end of the roll to keep everything together.
Involtini prosciutto cheese
In a deep metal pan over medium-high heat, heat olive oil. Brown each meat roll for a couple minutes on each side (you’ll probably want to do this in two or three batches to not crowd the pan). Set the meat aside.
beef involtini browning pan
In the same pan, add garlic, carrots and onions and saute for several minutes. Deglaze the pan with half a cup of wine (red preferably, but white works too). Add the strained tomatoes and a hit of salt. After a couple of minutes, once the sauce has started bubbling, put the meat sauce, turn the heat down to medium-low and allow to simmer uncovered for 45 minutes to an hour, until the meat is tender and you can’t stand to smell the dish any longer without tasting it. Serve with your favorite sauteed greens or a salad.
veggies saute pan
 

Cacio e Pepe: Simple, Quick and Delicious

26 Oct

cacio e pepe pepper cheese spaghetti

It’s a strange thing, this food blogging life. If you’re like us, you start out wanting to create some recipes and share food adventures through your blog. Eventually, you start to gain a bit of a following, and those followers start commenting about how they like your recipes, and enjoy reading your blog. And that excites you and pushes you to create even better recipes, and share more food adventures. But then, life happens—work, family, social commitments and, yes, laziness—and you can’t find the time to dream up great recipes to share with readers, and those readers start to move along (though a lot of you have stuck with us through the silence, and we really appreciate it).

Of course, a blog post doesn’t have to be long to be interesting, and a recipe doesn’t have to be complicated to be delicious. So with that in mind, here’s a quick look at a pasta dish that I’ve enjoyed for years, but for some reason had never made myself until recently: cacio e pepe.

This dish is incredibly simple, and almost insultingly so when you’re paying $12 for it in a restaurant (and yet I’m often guilty of doing just that when I see it on a menu). It’s pasta, pepper, pecorino cheese, and nothing else. Think of it as Italian KD—the nutritional value is minimal, but the flavours are comforting. There are really only two rules here—you must start with whole peppercorns, and you must use freshly grated cheese.

Here’s how you do it:

Boil a pot of water for the pasta. When the water is boiling, add a whole bunch of salt. You always want to add a good amount of salt to pasta water, but that’s especially true for cacio e pepe, since salty noodles add to the flavour of the finished dish. Throw in a package of spaghetti and let it cook to al dente. When the pasta is finished cooking, reserve about a half cup of pasta water and drain the noodles.

While the noodles are boiling, grind a tablespoon of peppercorns (or more if you like heat!). Even better, break them up with a mortar and pestle, which will crack the peppercorns into irregular sizes.

Next, grate a cup of pecorino romano cheese. (You want to finely grate the cheese for this, since a coarser grate can clump when you put together the final dish). You could use parmesan in a pinch, but the salty, earthy bite from the sheep’s milk-based pecorino really makes cacio e pepe what it is. Mix the pepper and cheese together in the same bowl.

Put the drained noodles back into the pasta pot, and toss with a handful of the pepper-cheese mixture. Add in a couple tablespoons of the pasta water (which will help the pepper and cheese stick, and the starch it retains from boiling the noodles will add creaminess to the sauce), and toss pasta with the rest of the pepper and cheese.

Serve as a side dish with meat, as a main with a salad… or on its own, nutritional value be damned.

cacio e pepe pasta pepper cheese spaghetti

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. 

Carbonara, Real and Re-imagined

22 Jun

Carbonara smoked bacon garlic scapes

Growing up with an Italian background, I’ve developed a passion for the great food my relatives introduced me to throughout my childhood. Generally though, I’m not one who believes that there are rules around Italian food that must be followed at all times… with three exceptions: bruschetta is pronounced “bru-sketta,” sugar doesn’t belong in tomato sauce, and spaghetti carbonara contains no cream. Ever.

While the name carbonara is derived from the Italian for “charcoal burner,” the dish’s origins are a bit murkier. One take is that it was called carbonara simply because the pepper resembled tiny flecks of coal. Another story says carbonara was created by coal miners as a quick meal that was easily prepared at job sites. I personally like this story best – because really, what self-respecting Italian preparing for a long stretch away from home wouldn’t pack some dried pasta and cured pork products?

The beauty of carbonara lies in its simplicity. Ultimately, it’s just pasta, pancetta, eggs and pepper. Beyond that, variations are hotly debated among carbonara purists. Some insist that only spaghetti be used, while others (myself included) say any noodle is fine. Some add onions, some garlic, and others use both. While pancetta is most common, some use guanciale instead. The thing everyone seems to agree on is that if it contains cream (relatively common in restaurants), it’s not carbonara.

I usually stick to the basics when I make my carbonara, while adding onions most of the time for a bit of extra flavour. Of course, I also don’t get to make it for dinner very often – its simplicity means carbonara lacks the protein, vegetables and nutrients that Jenny hopes for in a pasta dish. So as much as I get worked up about “real” carbonara, I’m usually trying to find ways to jazz it up and add a bit of nutritional value so my wife will let me make it. Once in a while I’ll add shrimp, or throw in something green and leafy.

eggs smoked bacon garlic scapes

My carbonara craving last night happened to coincide with a visit to the Brickworks Farmers Market this past weekend, which led me to create a version of the dish that – while still abiding by my central rule of no cream – threw out pretty much every other basic tenet of carbonara creation. I’d picked up some great smoked bacon from a vendor at the market, so in that went in place of pancetta. I also picked up some garlic scapes, which I thought would provide a compromise solution between onions or garlic. And I also added some frozen spinach and served the sauce on spelt noodles in order to add some nutrients and fibre. Whether or not the resulting dish was “true” carbonara is perhaps a matter of debate, but it tasted great and satisfied my craving nicely.

bacon garlic scapes chopped egg

Smoked Bacon and Garlic Scape Carbonara

Smoked bacon (enough to make the dish as bacon-y as your little heart desires)
2 garlic scapes
2 eggs
Spinach (ideally a large handful of fresh, though I used frozen spinach, thawed and drained, because it’s what I had on hand)
A cup or so of freshly grated parmigiano and/or pecorino-romano cheese

In a bowl, whisk together eggs, grated cheese and several turns of fresh ground pepper. Set aside.

Dice bacon into small cubes, and dice garlic scapes.

Prepare pasta according to package directions. While pasta is boiling, heat a tablespoon or so of olive oil in a pan over medium-high heat, and sautee bacon and garlic scapes until both become translucent. Then, turn off the heat.

Before draining pasta, reserve a half cup of the cooking water. Temper the eggs by slowly pouring a few teaspoons of this water into the bowl with your beaten eggs, whisking quickly as you do.

The next couple of steps require some quick work in order to retain the heat in the pasta, which will be used to “cook” the egg:

Toss drained pasta in the pan with the bacon and garlic scapes. Transfer to a large serving bowl, then slowly pour in egg/cheese mixture, tossing the pasta to coat as you pour. The goal is to have the egg sauce heated by the pasta, but to not get so hot that it curdles like scrambled eggs.

Serve in bowls, topped with more grated cheese and fresh ground pepper.

Celebrating Greek and Italian Cuisine at Malena

5 Apr
Malena Toronto

Malena Restaurant in Toronto (Photo credit: Malena)

Toronto has many Italian restaurants, and many that showcase Greek cuisine. But there’s only one restaurant in the city that brings the flavours of Greece together with the cooking of the nearby southern Italian region. Malena, which recently celebrated its first anniversary, focuses on the food of the Ionian sea that both these places border. That means a menu heavy on fish and seafood, as well as classic Mediterranean ingredients such as good olive oil, tomatoes, herbs and citrus.

I was invited to a media dinner celebrating both the restaurant’s first birthday and the introduction of its spring 2011 menu. The food writers and bloggers around the table were given the opportunity to taste a selection of appetizers and desserts prepared by Malena chef Doug Neigel and his team, and we each chose a main from a selection that included gnudi with braised rabbit, a Berkshire pork chop on celery root mash, whole grilled sea bream served with gigantes beans in tomato with tzatziki, and my selection, seared branzino filets with fennel, rapini and anchovy lemon vinaigrette.

Seared Branzino
Seared branzino with fennel and rapini

This was my first exposure to chef Neigel’s food, and I was impressed with his ability to combine flavours to create dishes that were neither Greek nor Italian, but were both. The branzino, also known as European sea bass, was a definite highlight of the meal. But the standouts for me were two of the appetizers we sampled.

The grilled octopus served with pancetta and root vegetable fregola (a southern Italian pasta similar to Israeli couscous) and orange agro dolce was amazing. Grilled octopus has a simple, fresh taste that is distinctly Mediterranean, and the fregola and orange agro dolce worked well with the charred notes from the octopus. While grilled octopus is fairly common in Greece and parts of Italy, it’s not something I’ve seen on many Toronto menus.

Grilled Octopus
Grilled octopus on pancetta and root vegetable fregola with orange agro dolce

We were also served an uni crostini that blew my mind. I’d actually had my first exposure to uni (sea urchin) just a couple weeks earlier, in the form of sushi. Sea urchin is a crustacean that looks similar to an oyster, but with a softer texture and a taste that is mildly sweet and briny. Chef Neigel paired the uni with mashed avocado, a great complement that mimicked the sea urchin’s texture while being mild enough to let its flavours shine through.

Sea Urchin Crostini
Sea urchin and avocado crostini

We were also treated to a selection of desserts, of which the simplest – cannoli – stood out for me. It’s easy to find cannoli in Toronto, but not so easy to find great cannoli. Pastry chef Leigha Dimitroff’s cannoli falls into the ‘great’ category, with a shell that is perfectly crisp and not too sweet, and a rich filling that changes with the seasons.

Through the meal, the chef repeatedly highlighted his emphasis on using the best ingredients regardless of geographic boundaries, but at the same time ensuring as many of his products as possible come from sustainable sources. While some of the fish and seafood comes from Europe, Neigel emphasized that both the branzino and sea bream are raised sustainably in Greece. The uni in his crostini come from a sustainable source in B.C., and the rabbit and pork are farm-raised in Ontario.

Neigel told me that while his focus is on serving great food, he understands and appreciates the increasing demand from diners for ethically-sourced ingredients.

“My first job is to provide the quality and variety in ingredients that our guests are looking for. I try whenever possible to have those ingredients be sustainable and local. I think it’s truly up to the diners to push us towards more local and sustainable products.  I will give them the options and the more they ask for it the more I can provide it,” he says.

Neigel says that growing up in Ontario’s Muskoka region helped him gain an appreciation for the link between nature and food, and he has a particular love for Italian and Greek cuisines because of their focus on letting the ingredients shine through.

“I grew up on the water, so we fished a lot. The strongest influence that gave me was simple preparation and the freshest ingredients. I fell in love with Italian food because of the simplicity of the cuisine. It really makes you focus on the quality of the product you use. At Malena, I cook much lighter, using little butter and cream. I also have great inspiration from the tradition and ingredients in Greek cuisine.”

Viva Italia! Cucina Gala Showcases Toronto’s Italian Delights

3 Mar

Buca at George Brown

Being half Italian, I’ve had the pleasure of eating great Italian food my entire life. I grew up eating the simple dishes my dad made that he remembered from his childhood, the complex pastas that my mom (not Italian, but an amateur gourmet chef) loved to experiment with, and the lasagnas, slow-cooked sauces and great grilled meats made by my Italian aunts and uncles that I’ve tried to duplicate the taste of ever since I started messing around in the kitchen.

While I love eating the familiar flavours I grew up on, I also get excited about being able to sample new takes on Italian dishes prepared by great professional chefs. Jenny and I were recently at an event that let us do just that. The George Brown College Chef School’s Viva Italia! Cucina event is a week-long celebration of the food and culture of Italy. For the past three years, the event has allowed diners the opportunity to eat lunches and dinners prepared by the college’s talented students, and to enjoy movies and other Italian cultural offerings. Proceeds from the events go toward scholarships for George Brown culinary students.

The Viva Italia event we attended was the gala tasting reception, which brought together some of Toronto’s best chefs, along with food and wine producers, for an evening of eating, drinking and enjoying Italian culture.

Buca sign

Jenny and I agreed that one of the best samples we had at the gala was Buca chef Rob Gentile’s dish of rare beef heart served with grilled radicchio Treviso, taleggio cheese from Montforte Dairy, Cookstown Greens cippolini onion, preserved figs and concorde grape mosto cotto. The flavours worked beautifully together in this dish, with sweet, sour and bitter elements paired well with the rich, earthy taste of the beef heart.

Of course, Toronto is a city full of great Italian restaurants, so many of the dishes we tasted were amazing. Here are some of the highlights:

Pingue prosciuttoMario Pingue of Niagara’s Pingue Prosciutto was on hand to sample his product, slicing the prosciutto fresh for eaters over the course of the evening. Pingue’s is the prosciutto of choice for many Ontario restaurants, and it’s not hard to see why, as the taste and texture is very close to the authentic stuff that gets imported from Parma.

Local Kitchen TorontoChef Fabio Bondi from Local Kitchen was serving crostini topped with thinly sliced potato, braised octopus and a hint of citrus. A delicious bite of food.

risottoStaff from Toronto fine food grocer Pusateri’s was preparing chicken and spinach risotto. While I rarely order risotto in a restaurant and only occasionally make it at home, I have a soft spot for it as an Italian comfort food, so I was happy to see it being prepared fresh for diners at the Viva Italia! Cucina gala.

Zucca Trattoria TorontoChef Andrew Milne-Allan of popular Toronto restaurant Zucca Trattoria prepared a canape of farro, cooked risotto-style and mixed with shrimp, lemon, celery and onion, and served on an endive leaf. The endive is a great vessel for serving something like this, as it’s strong enough to hold the food well while also adding a nice hit of bitter to the dish. And it was nice to see farro being used, as it’s a grain I’m still not very familiar with but have really enjoyed the few times I’ve eaten it.

Peroni cheese and beer

While the food was great, Jenny and I really enjoyed the chance to interact with many of the chefs and food representatives on hand, to discover new ideas and stories. Representatives from Peroni, one of Italy’s most popular beers, were there to educate attendees about how well their beer pairs with one of Italy’s most popular cheeses, asiago. While the idea of pairing cheese and beer isn’t necessarily new – a dark Belgian ale is a great match for cheese fondue, for instance – consumption of beer is still low in Italy and it’s not a common pairing for cheese in the cuisine.

As we tasted, the Peroni reps explained that beer and cheese naturally complement one another, as the cows that produce the milk used in the cheese consume some of the same grains used in the production of the beer. The Peroni was definitely a great match with the sharp asiago, as both have an inherent creamy mouth feel, and the sweet hoppy taste of the beer helps to mellow out the cheese’s strong bite.

Torito pasta

We also really loved chatting with chef Luis Valenzuela of Torito Tapas Bar. While both the restaurant and the chef are Spanish, it was Valenzuela who made one of the best Italian dishes of the night. He blanched homemade tagliatelle noodles in water for one minute, then placed the noodles in a mold along with chunks of braised wild boar guanciale and amatriciana (spicy tomato) sauce. The molds were placed in the oven to cook, so that the end result was a sort of cross between a plate of pasta and a layered lasagna. Chef Valenzuela topped each dish with a disc of deliciously salty, thinly sliced Pingue’s pancetta. He was also serving a dish of raw spaghetti squash and thinly julienned zucchini tossed with a peanut and almond sauce that tasted very Spanish inspired.

The fact that Chef Valenzuela’s guanciale amatriciana pasta was clearly one of the night’s most popular dishes – he told us he made more than 100 servings and he was down to about 20 left just an hour into the evening, and there were constantly lineups at his booth – is proof positive that you don’t have to be Italian to cook amazing Italian food; you just need passion for both the food and the people eating it.

Torito Toronto

Valenzuela spoke to us with passion about the time he spent studying at George Brown College’s culinary school. He said he started in the program shortly after moving from his native Mexico, and George Brown allowed him to explore a number of different cuisines, cook with and learn from chefs who’d worked all over the world (including one who had cooked for the queen), and make important industry connections. He said he still feels strong ties to the school, which is why he comes back to volunteer his time and skills to events such as the Viva Italia week.

This was our first exposure to the Viva Italia! Cucina event at George Brown College’s Chef School, but judging by the size of the crowd and the great chefs who attended, it’s clearly developed a strong following. We’ll definitely go back to the gala next year – and hopefully enjoy one of the lunches or dinners during the week, as well.

The crowd enjoying dessert at the Viva Italia! Cucina gala at George Brown College.

Perfect Tiramisu, Part 3: Communal Table’s Original Recipe

1 Mar

Those who have been following this blog may remember our tiramisu saga that began a few months ago. And for those of you who are new here, you can read the first two installments of mine and Neil’s crazy quest to find the perfect tiramisu recipe here and here.

This may just be the end though, because the recipe I’m posting below came pretty close to tiramisu nirvana.

After my last try at homemade tiramisu, I knew I wanted to make it again but didn’t think I’d take on the challenge for a while. It’s not that making this classic Italian dessert is hard, it’s just time consuming and I wanted to make sure the next attempt would get it right.

But after reading about our earlier trials and tribulations, my sister Jayme requested that I make it for her birthday this year. And that’s what started my little tiramisu science lab, if you will.

This time, I decided I was going to develop my own recipe. I wanted to use Madeira wine once again and I knew we were after a saturated consistency in the cookie layer and a smooth, creamy texture in the cheese layer.

After my last try, Toronto food expert Christine Picheca chimed in with some advice and told me to ditch the ladyfinger cookies and try savoiardi biscuits instead. Because they’re more porous, she said they would give me the consistency I was looking for. Last time the ladyfingers I used made for a very cakey and dryer tiramisu than I wanted.

I researched a lot of different recipes this time around, some using anywhere from 3-6 eggs, some using anywhere from 3 tbsp to a whole cup of sugar and some using more or less mascarpone.

Most recipes claiming to be ‘authentic’ (including the one on the savoiardi biscuits package) only called for egg yolks and no whites. None of them called for whipping cream, which I thought seemed wrong the last time I made it but I didn’t want to stray from the recipe I chose to follow at the time.

To make sure I was using the best possible ingredients, I made a special trip to Fiesta Farms, one of our favorite places to shop for quality food in Toronto. Their selection of ethnic food items, especially Italian products, is amazing and I even found mascarpone cheese imported from Italy.

I actually planned on only using the egg yolks, but I found the consistency of the mascarpone to be too dense. So I whipped up two of the whites, mixed them in and the consistency seemed just right for our taste.

People have lots of opinions about what kind of espresso to use and how to brew it (espresso machine, Italian stovetop espresso pot etc..) but I think that most good-quality strong espresso will do and you should brew it any way that makes sense for you at home. Once again I made mine in a French press using really good quality Italian espresso and I really think that’s fine. We do have a stovetop espresso maker but I just didn’t feel like using it. The result I got was perfect. I do of course agree that you should always use espresso and never regular coffee grinds, but how you make it is up to you.

And so, after lots of geeky research, discussions and testing, the recipe that follows is completely original to Communal Table and, if I do say so myself, pretty freaking awesome.

Everyone at my sister’s birthday celebration raved about it. My brother-in-law told me that he doesn’t normally like tiramisu or any dessert with alcohol in it (we’re clearly not blood-related) but even he really liked it! How’s that for a stamp of approval?

The savoiardi biscuits really made a huge difference. They made for a lighter, fluffier cookie layer and did take in the liquid much better than denser ladyfingers. The whole dessert was light while still being nice and rich, intense in flavor and totally satisfying. Everyone wanted more, and that’s how I know we’ve come as close as can be to perfection.

Communal Table’s Tiramisu

Serves approx 10-12, using a large rectangular pyrex dish

4 egg yolks

2 egg whites

3 Tbsp sugar

2 x 250 g containers of mascarpone cheese (you will use 1 whole container plus ¾ of the other. One container = approx 1 cup)

1 generous cup strong espresso

1 cup Madeira wine (or a strong alcohol of your choice like brandy or rum)

48 savoiardi biscuits

Cocoa powder

Brew your espresso and let it cool.

In a large mixing bowl, using an electric mixer, beat the egg yolks with the sugar for a few minutes until you get a smooth consistency and all of the sugar granules are incorporated and disappear.

Add the mascarpone into the egg mixture and beat on a medium setting to get a smooth, creamy texture.

Clean the beaters and get a fresh bowl. Beat the egg whites for a couple of minutes until they’re nice and fluffy. Don’t over-mix. You don’t want them to form heavy peaks (like you do for meringue).

Fold the egg whites into the mascarpone mixture. Once again, don’t over-mix.

Pour the cooled espresso into a shallow, flat-bottomed bowl or pan and add in the Madeira.

Place your pyrex dish (or tiramisu receptacle) right next to the espresso bowl and get your biscuits ready.

Lightly dip each biscuit in the espresso mixture, sugar-side up, then transfer to the pyrex dish and place sugar-side down. I cannot stress enough how light of a dip the savoiardi biscuits need. They are very porous and will get really soggy fast if you let them sit in the liquid.

We like our tiramisu to be very wet so I dunked the entire biscuit into the liquid and swished it around for a second. If you like a more cakey consistency, make sure you really dip lightly on one side only or use thicker ladyfinger cookies.

Line the entire pyrex with the dipped biscuits. Cover the layer of biscuits with a layer of mascarpone mixture. Don’t use too much, you just want enough to cover the entire layer, but don’t put it on too thick.

Continue with the rest of the savoiardi biscuits, placing them on top of the mascarpone mixture to create another layer. Top that layer with the rest of the mascarpone mixture and spread evenly.

Cover the tiramisu with plastic wrap and refrigerate (make sure you’ve cleared a good space for it in your fridge beforehand!) for at least 6 hours or overnight.

Just before serving, sprinkle the tiramisu with a dusting of cocoa powder.

Special thanks to my tiramisu-convert bro-in-law Stewart for the photos

Pasta Pinwheels: Dinner Made Easy AND Pretty

17 Feb

A few weeks ago I found myself in the organic section of the grocery store picking up a box of kamut lasagna noodles. This was a strange occurrence for me, not because of the kamut but because I have never purchased a box of lasagna noodles. Ever.

I have never made a lasagna from scratch myself. There, I’ve admitted it.

And here are some reasons why:

-       I will never be able to make a lasagna that even attempts to rival Neil’s aunts (all of his aunts!) and his mother’s, for that matter. (aunts make the classic Italian meat version, mom makes a creamy béchamel version. Neil daydreams often about both)

-       I pretty much know for sure that any homemade version I attempt has no chance standing up against the one from 7 Numbers in Toronto either.

-       Making a whole lasagna for just two people seems silly somehow, and I never think of making it for guests.

-       Lasagna just always seems like a major pain in the butt to make. When I think of the steps involved compared to the simplicity of the final product, my brain shuts down.

So there I was staring at the kamut lasagna noodles thinking “but they’re so pretty!” I realize this might make me a little crazy, but there it is. I’m big on the aesthetics of my food. I’ve always thought that lasagna noodles, with their curly edges, are quite an attractive noodle and they’re usually hidden among the layers of sauce, cheese and other typical lasagna accoutrements.

I bought the box and figured I’d either research some cool way to use them, or surprise Neil sometime by trying to finally make my own lasagna. The first option came to fruition after a little scan on FoodGawker. As soon as I spotted some photos of what some people call “lasagna rollups”, I knew what to do.

I wasn’t in the mood for the classic flavors of lasagna and didn’t want to make a tomato-based sauce. I also didn’t have a lot of time.

What followed was one of the easiest and quickest dinners I’ve ever made. I’m not joking. This recipe both showcases the ‘prettiness’ of the lasagna noodles and comes together faster than anyone would believe once they see and taste the final result.

You can obviously use this same idea with any kind of filling and/or sauce and you can make as many or as little as you want at a time.

I think I’ve found a new go-to weeknight dinner, and a reason to finally stock my cupboard with some of the most attractive noodles around.

Pasta Pinwheels

Lasagna Noodles – I used Kamut noodles, 10 of them (you can make as much or as little as you want, just adjust the filling accordingly)

Filling:

1 475g tub ricotta (I used light ricotta)

Zest of 1 lemon

Handful of basil, chopped

Handful of Italian parsley, chopped

Pepper

Sauce:

1 large shallot, chopped

Handful of dried porcini mushrooms, reconstituted in 1 ½ cups of hot water

3 Tbsp butter

1 cup white wine

Half a lemon

Boil the lasagna noodles according to the package, but make sure you leave them al dente. If they’re too soft, they’ll fall apart and will be hard to work with.

Preheat the oven the 350 degrees.

In a bowl, mix all five ingredients for the filling.

Chop the soft porcini mushrooms but reserve all of the liquid they were sitting in.

In a sauté pan, cook the shallot in a little bit of olive oil on medium heat until translucent. Add in the butter and sauté a few minutes more. Season with salt and pepper.

Add in the white wine and slowly raise the heat to medium high as you mix, to cook off the alcohol. Add in the chopped porcinis and 1 cup of the mushroom liquid. Squeeze in the juice of half a lemon, mix and take off heat.

When the lasagna noodles are done, drain them and run cold water over them to cool them off.

Place noodles on a cutting board or clean, dry surface. Spoon the filling mixture onto each lasagna noodle. Roll each noodle slowly, using both hands.

Place all the pinwheels into a glass baking dish and pour the mushroom sauce overtop.

Place in the oven for about 15 minutes to heat everything through.

To serve, sprinkle with freshly grated parmesan cheese and a little bit of chopped parsley.


Polpette Rustico: Meatballs with Pine Nuts, Raisins & Simple Tomato Sauce

11 Feb

I was lucky enough to share in Neil’s first experience (aka: the beginning of his love affair) with New York City. When we first met I couldn’t believe that he had never been there before. For someone who’s so passionate about food, culture, art, music and history, it seemed like a crime that he had been missing out on a city that’s known for the best of all of it.

Especially when it comes to the food. Oh, the food.

When we took that first trip together, Neil had a list of restaurants and food items to try that could have lasted us about a year and a half.

We only had 4 days. I’ll spare you the gluttonous details.

But among the amazing meals we had was the unforgettable night we shared sitting on the street-side patio at Morandi in the West Village. And the best part was that we had stumbled upon it randomly, knowing nothing about the place or the chef.

Jody Williams (now famous for her appearances as judge on Food Network’s ‘Chopped‘) was the chef there at the time and the menu really got us excited. Nothing fancy, just simple Italian trattoria fare but with the kinds of exciting ingredients that always feed our passion for food in New York.

We ordered the fried artichoke with lemon to start and I actually remember our collective reaction after taking the first bite. We got that knowing look in our eyes followed by ‘Oh My God’s and a shared laugh marking our extreme fulfillment.

We also experienced real burrata for the first time ever that night, and we knew we had stumbled upon something special.

Us at Morandi in NYC’s West Village

But it was Morandi’s Sicilian meatballs (Polpettine alla Siciliana) that really stole our hearts. We were so enamored with the interesting addition of pine nuts and raisins. It seemed untraditional at the time but whenever I think of Italian meatballs now, these are the version that I crave.

We immediately set out to craft our own version when we got home. We created our recipe from scratch, inspired by the meatballs at Morandi, but adding our own touches including lemon zest, which I love in this dish. Many, many batches later, these meatballs have become one of our favorite comfort foods and always remind us of that first trip to NYC.

When I made them the other night, Neil gave me the best compliment ever when he said that our kitchen smelled like his nonna’s as soon as he walked through the door. That made me smile.

These meatballs are rustic, flavorful and delicious enough to eat on their own as a meal. We serve them with salad, crusty bread and a generous heaping of the thick, rich tomato sauce.

Polpette Rustico: Meatballs with Pine Nuts, Raisins & Simple Tomato Sauce

For Sauce:

1 medium onion, chopped

1 small bulb of fennel, chopped, fronds reserved and roughly chopped

1 bottle of strained Italian tomatoes

3 Tbsp olive oil

½ cup water

1 Tbsp balsamic vinegar

Handful basil leaves, chopped

Salt & pepper to taste

For Meatballs:

½ pound ground veal or lean ground beef

½ pound ground pork

¼ cup chopped basil leaves (approx 10 leaves)

½ cup raisins (golden or sultana)

½ cup pine nuts (you can toast them for more intense flavor or leave them raw)

1 egg

Zest of 1 lemon

1/3 cup plain breadcrumbs

* Makes approx 20 large-sized meatballs.

In a deep sauce pan, heat 3 Tbsp of olive oil on medium-high. Add the fennel and onion and sauté for 5-7 minutes. Roughly chop the fennel fronds and add to the pot. Add some salt, to taste, and keep sautéing for another 1-2 minutes.

Add tomatoes, water and basil. Mix and season again with salt and pepper. Add in the balsamic vinegar. Mix well. Lower heat to a simmer and cover.

In a large mixing bowl, add all eight ingredients for the meatballs. Mix well with your hands to incorporate all of the ingredients.

Form into balls. You can make them as big or as small as you want. If you’re eating them with pasta then make smaller balls but if you’re having them as a meal on their own (as we like to do) then form larger meatballs.

Heat about 1 Tbsp of olive oil on medium-high heat in a large frying pan. Add the meatballs and brown on all sides, turning each one using tongs. You might have to do this in two batches. When the meatballs are browned on all sides, add them one at a time right into the simmering tomato sauce.

Some pine nuts and raisins may come loose and end up in the pan. We like to scoop them up and add them right into the sauce to add extra flavor.

Once all the meatballs are added into the sauce, cover the pot and simmer on a medium-low heat for approx 35-45 minutes.

Cut into a meatball to make sure they’re cooked all the way through before serving.


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