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Food, Film & Stories of Unrequited Love – An evening at Reel Eats “Like Water for Chocolate”

9 Dec

Reel Eats Like Water for Chocolate

Everyone who knows me knows I’m a sucker for a great story. When unrequited love is on the menu, you’ve got my undivided attention twofold. Throw in beautiful food, a cozy setting and good company and you’ve got the makings of a perfect evening.

That’s how I felt about our very first experience attending Reel Eats, a monthly movie-themed dinner and storytelling event that “seeks to celebrate the art of a good story through every frame, plate and experience”

The events take place monthly in Toronto and are the brainchild of a dynamic group of chefs and foodie folks: Mary Luz Mejia and Mario Stojanac of Sizzling CommunicationsVanessa Yeung and Domenic Ubaldino of Aphrodite Cooks and Sang Kim – restaurateur, writer and cook behind Sushi Making for the Soul.

We were treated to a delectable authentic Mexican meal by Mexican-born Chef Francisco Alejandri, inspired by the extraordinary film “Like Water for Chocolate”.

Reel Eats Mexican

Chef Francisco Alejandri cooking for guests at Reel Eats

Seated at communal tables in the inviting and cozy Aphrodite Cooks culinary loft space in the west end of Toronto, about 40 people, a mix of strangers and friends, enjoyed a special meal with the film playing silently in the background to set the mood. Through the evening, three storytellers entertained us with unique tales inspired by the movie’s theme of unrequited love & loss. Dinner theatre with a twist!

Neil and I are so enamored with real Mexican food and flavors, and the meal we ate convinced me that I could step into any family home across Mexico and be treated to the very same mix of dishes. I realized afterwards that interestingly, it was the first multi-course Mexican meal I’ve ever eaten that didn’t include any corn product or ingredients whatsoever.

Chef Alejandri

Chef Alejandri’s menu may have sounded simple, but each dish was layered with complex flavors that made for a really surprising and enjoyable meal.

We started with “Mama Elena’s Sopa de Fideo Aguada con chorizo” – Vermicelli Pasta cooked al dente and finished in a spicy chorizo tomato broth, served with ripe banana. A few people seemed thrown by the fresh banana slices but I was giddy about the flavor and texture combinations. This was superb.

Chorizo Soup with Banana

Next came the main dishes, served family-style at the table. “Pedro’s Almond Chicken” included dark and white meat finished in a mild almond sauce. The almond sauce was so decadent and delicious I dreamed about it for days afterwards.

Reel Eats Mexican dishes

“Pork in Spicy “Revolutionary” Mole Sauce” consisted of fall-off –the-bone pork ribs cooked in a spicy red mole served with rice. One of the storytellers focused his tale around the importance & identity of mole in Mexico and how it differs from region to region, family to family. Chef Alejandri’s mole was like none I’ve ever had before. You could taste the hours of cooking and multiple ingredients that went into it. It was perfection!

The mains were served with a side of earthy sautéed mushrooms & potatoes with wilted spinach, a delicious accompaniment.

Reel Eats Mexican Meal

The dessert course really spoke to the themes in the film. “Tita’s Passionate Deep Chocolate Torte served with sensual rose petal ice cream” forced me to eat every bite very slowly to take in the decadence of the dense chocolate torte and the delicate flavor of the rose ice cream (one of my favorite flavors!). It was such a gorgeous end to a beautiful meal.

Chocolate Cake Rose Ice Cream

The event was BYOB and the organizers sent suggested wine pairings via email a few days prior. They served two different kinds of ‘agua fresca,’ which Neil and I really appreciated after learning about and enjoying different varieties at a Mexican cooking school we visited last year. The deep green, fire-quenching cucumber and parsley agua fresca was a great accompaniment to the meal, and helped to put out the scorch of the spicy mole.

We had what I can honestly describe as a memorable and enchanted evening, and I really encourage anyone living in the greater Toronto area to attend a Reel Eats event if you’re looking for a unique, entertaining and delicious night out. Join the Reel Eats Facebook page to be kept up to date about future events.

Storyteller Mary Luz Mejia at Reel Eats

Storyteller Mary Luz Mejia at Reel Eats

Sisterly Pride and a New Favorite Snack

14 Nov

I have three younger sisters and I’m insanely proud of all of their accomplishments and choices in life. It was a life-altering experience that led my youngest sister Jill to a career in holistic nutrition. And aside from my usual sense of pride, I’m also grateful that as a result, she’s introduced me to a whole new world of delicious and health-conscious food.

After overcoming a very serious case of shingles that put her whole life on hold for almost a year, my sister left a stress-inducing career in fashion to go back to school for holistic nutrition. It wasn’t until she took control of her own health and educated herself that she was able to fully heal.

Jill has come a long way and has worked hard to build her new career path. She’s now a practicing holistic nutritionist in Ottawa and will be teaching cooking classes at a clinic called Revivelife. She also works for a great company called Enerjive, which has created a line of healthy snacks: Quinoa Skinny Crackers.

I would never endorse a product I didn’t truly believe in or feel passionate about. But after my sister introduced me to Quinoa Skinnys I fell in love with my new favorite snack. I’ve tried every single flavour, two savory and three sweet, and I’m having a hard time deciding which one is my top pick. It’s a toss up between ‘Heat’ (garlic & cayenne) and ‘Fix’ (chocolate).

The savory flavours really hit the spot when I’m craving something salty and the sweet ones are just sweet enough to curb my afternoon sweet craving without a sugar crash or an overpowering sense of guilt.

Jill likes to use the rock-salt flavor ‘Crave’ as a crust for baked tilapia. Enerjive has shared some of their own recipes for yummy granola-style mixes below. They sent me samples of each and I liked them so much, I ate them with plain Greek yogurt for breakfast every morning until my stash was gone. And when it was I just crushed up one stick of the apple cinnamon ‘Cozy’ flavor and one stick of the lemon berry ‘Burst’ flavor and tossed the pieces on top of my plain Greek yogurt along with some dried coconut and a drizzle of buckwheat honey (pictured at the top).

Quinoa Skinny Crackers are available at select stores across Canada. Check out Enerjive’s website for store locations and more info.

Giveaway: If you’re dying to try them for yourself, we’ve got one lovely gift basket including all five flavors for one lucky reader (within Ontario only). All you have to do is leave us a comment below telling us about your most favorite healthy snack. We’ll choose one random winner and the gift pack is yours.

Thanks to Enerjive for sharing the following recipes for their three granola-style mixes! (I loved them all, but the salty/sweet Crave Cruncher won my heart)

Each recipe makes 2 cups (6 servings)

Cozy Trail

6 Enerjive apple cinnamon Cozy Skinnys, roughly chopped

½ cup dried mulberries

¼ cup each: walnut pieces and slivered almonds

¼ cup each: sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds

¼ tsp ground cinnamon

In a large bowl, combine ingredients well. Transfer and store in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

SKINNY TIP: Keep mix in the fridge to retain flavours and freshness and prevent nuts and seeds from going rancid.

Crave Cruncher

6 Enerjive rock salt Crave Skinnys, roughly chopped

1/2 cup raw cashews, roughly chopped

1/3 cup brown rice puffs or quinoa puffs

1/3 cup each: dried cranberries and dark chocolate chips or pieces

2 tbsp sesame seeds

In a large bowl, combine ingredients well. Transfer and store in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

SKINNY TIP: Add crave cruncher to your oatmeal or a top a fruit salad for added crunch!

Fix Mix

6 Enerjive chocolate Fix Skinnys, roughly chopped

¼ cup pecans, roughly chopped

¼ cup each: sunflower seed and pumpkin seeds

¼ cup each: unsweetened coconut flakes and dried goji berries

2 tbsp each: cacao nibs and hemp seeds

In a large bowl, combine ingredients well. Transfer and store in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

SKINNY TIP: For added flavour, toast sunflower and pumpkin seeds before adding into the mix.

A Father’s Day Tribute & Contest from Fiesta Farms

12 Jun

I could listen to people’s personal stories about cooking and eating with their families for hours on end. Food truly does bring people together and bonds family members.

I’ll never forget witnessing the intense feeling of sadness and regret when Neil’s aunt passed away and his cousin, her son, came face to face with the reality that he would never taste her hand-made lasagna ever again…That moment touched me deeply.

Our family recipes, food rituals and meals should never be taken for granted.

Father’s day is coming up this weekend and Fiesta Farms is running a really awesome contest in honor of dads and grandfathers and the food memories that surround them.

The 2012 Apron Strings Contest is a call out to Torontonians to share your stories, recipes and food memories about your dad or grandfather for a chance at winning one of three gift certificates to the store. All entries will be posted on the Fiesta Farms website and the top 3 will win the prize. You have until June 30th to share your story and you can enter here.

On top of that, the good folks at Fiesta Farms have put together Father’s Day cooking videos featuring families sharing recipes and cooking together for our viewing pleasure. They’re very cute and fun to watch.

The contest inspired Neil and me to think about our own personal stories and we both decided to write separate entries for the contest.

As a tribute to our dads, we wanted to share what we wrote with our Communal Table readers.

Happy upcoming Father’s Day to our amazing fathers Phil Tryansky & Nick Faba and to all the dads out there!

Jenny’s Father’s Day Tribute Story:

Steak and French Fries – The Other Side of My Grandfather       

This one’s about my grandfather’s cooking but my dad is just as much an important part of the memory as a whole…

My grandfather was a complex man. The kind of person who didn’t say a lot and had a presence that some found intimidating. We spent many Christmas vacations staying at my grandparent’s condo in Florida. A traditional man, my grandfather was not one to help out in the kitchen and spent most of his days playing cards with his friends. But –my favorite memory of him, one that is still so vivid in my mind, is when he cooked for the family his one and only signature meal: Steak and French fries.

He would banish everyone from the kitchen and get to work slicing and peeling potatoes to make homemade thick-cut fries (legendary in my own father’s childhood memories) and spice up huge steaks. I remember he would wear an apron, which would always make me take notice and instantly softened his stature. The smell of the fries frying always made everyone salivate and we couldn’t wait to get our hands on a plate of them. They were the best I’ve ever had; Oily, salty and soft yet crispy. I don’t know how he achieved perfection every time.

He served the meal with extra spicy pickles that my dad would always proudly note my grandfather ‘doctored up’ himself and we would all sit down to a meal that allowed me to see a whole other side of my ‘Zaidie’.

I cherish that special food memory.

** When I shared this story with my dad, he in turn shared this happy little nugget with me: “I can still smell the fries and imagine their taste with salt and ketchup. But I especially remember how happy it made him to make all that for all his kids”

Neil’s Father’s Day Tribute Story:

I don’t have a lot of childhood food memories that include my father. He worked a lot, and while we were fortunate to be able to sit down to meals as a family on a fairly regular basis, my mom was often the one to cook those meals. And since she’s always been something of an amateur gourmet chef and genuinely loves cooking, I tend to consider her my most important culinary influence.

But in so many ways, my dad is responsible for how I think about and approach food. He was born in Italy, moving to Canada when he was 11 years old. Since crossing the ocean for a new life, his family has held on to the recipes and food traditions that had been so much a part of their ancestry and history in the “Old Country.” My zios (Italian for uncles) keep expansive vegetable gardens at their suburban Toronto homes, cellar salumi and cheeses in their basements to eat when they’ve been aged to perfection, and make their own (addictively drinkable) wine. Those ingredients have been central to many family meals I enjoyed as a child, and continue to enjoy now with my wife and other new family members.

And while I’ve only recently realized it, my father is a pretty amazing cook in his own right. My parents separated when I was 16, and in the years immediately after that I don’t recall a lot of great meals with my dad. What I do remember (and what my sister and I tease him about still, even though I think it only happened once) was my dad serving us mashed potatoes that turned out to be from a box. 

At 19, I moved away to go to university, and after graduation I continued to live away from home for another five years. It was over that 10-year stretch that a slow, almost imperceptible change began to take place in my dad’s kitchen. Each time I came home and sat down to a meal, something new and different was in front of me – expertly prepared fish, risottos and meat dishes. When I started bringing Jenny to dinner at my dad’s, she was quick to compliment him on what he’d made, often asking for the recipe and for his cooking tips. 

I remember how I felt the first time she said to me, after a dinner my dad had cooked, “I can see where you get your great cooking skills from.” It was at that point that I began to realize that my father had always had great culinary skills. It had just taken him a while to feel the passion needed to really showcase those skills, and it took me even longer to recognize a part of him we’d both taken for granted. And I think that’s a lesson about fathers: Often, it’s so easy for kids to focus on ways they think their dads don’t measure up. But by doing that, we’re often missing out on appreciating the great men they truly are.

Homemade Chicken Burgers – A Kickoff to Summer!

30 May

Summer’s here, and it seemed to come on fast. I was just getting used to the no socks with shoes thing when full-on sandals and bare legs weather came out of nowhere.

But I say bring it on.

I love this time of year and I find it inspires me to dream up seasonally appropriate meals meant to be eaten outdoors.

The other night I had a craving for chicken burgers, and we initially went hunting for good quality pre-made ones at a local butcher shop. But when we couldn’t find any, I decided to make them from scratch and I’m so happy I did. It was way less of a big deal than I originally imagined, and it was worth it once we sat down to dig into these juicy and flavorful burgers.

It was Neil’s idea to buy ground chicken breasts and ground chicken thighs. I think that’s what ensured the chicken burgers were so tender and juicy and not dry. 

I’ll admit I’m a bit of a nut when it comes to kitchen safety and bacteria where chicken is concerned. I often avoid cooking it altogether because I’m that paranoid about salmonella poisoning (Yes, there was a traumatic experience in my past that made me this way).

But luckily, with chicken burgers you pretty much only need to use one bowl and one platter to hold the patties once they’re formed. I’m not going to lie though, I did throw on a pair of latex gloves to mix the meat by hand and form the patties. It actually worked beautifully! (If this makes me a freak, at least I’m a cautious freak.)

These chicken burgers are simple enough in flavor that they won’t fight with any toppings, but flavorful enough that you don’t need to heap the toppings on if you don’t want to.

We ate ours with guacamole & spicy greens on one night and with Peri-Peri hot sauce & sweet/spicy preserved shallots on another. They’re pretty versatile and would probably go well with anything you dream up to top them with.

Happy summer!

Communal Table’s Chicken Burgers

1 package ground chicken breasts

1 package ground chicken thighs

2 large shallots, diced

Handful of cilantro, chopped

Garlic powder

Onion powder

Ground cumin

Ground coriander

Sea salt and fresh ground pepper

**All spices to taste (eyeball it!)

Mix all the ingredients really well in a bowl and form into patties. If you’re a paranoid bacteria-phobe like I am, use gloves for this step but either way, make sure you wash your hands well and be careful about cross contamination.

Barbeque the burgers for approximately 6-7 minutes per side on medium-high heat.

Serve on a delicious bun along with your favorite toppings and eat outdoors – it’s summer!  

Spiced Prunes from The Manse Boutique Inn

28 May

Weekend getaways can be so restorative, especially in a place as magical and charming as Prince Edward County.

Neil and I fell in love with the County a few years ago when we first visited for the annual event Taste the County and then again for The Great Canadian Cheese Festival. Every time we’ve been back since we’ve fallen deeper and deeper for this exceptional region of Ontario.

There’s no shortage of things to do and see from visiting wineries, farms and local artisans, to antique hunting, beach-going, walking the main streets of the small towns, and of course, eating. You do not go hungry when you visit the County. 

With so many local farmers and food producers, there’s a real sense in the County that people truly care about good food and using the freshest local ingredients. 

On our most recent trip to PEC, we had the pleasure of staying at The Manse Boutique Inn in Picton only three weeks after its grand opening and it was absolutely spectacular. Aside from the stunning setting in the century old building, the food at The Manse is definitely a draw thanks to Chef Chris Wylie who runs the inn with his wife Kathleen.

Breakfast is included when you book one of their seven lovely rooms and it was a highlight of our weekend. Chef Wylie smokes his own bacon, cures his own salmon and takes a lot of pride in his food, which was apparent to Neil and I through chatting with him.

Chef Wylie’s delicate cured salmon on potato pancake

House-smoked bacon & the most amazing ‘Hoito pancakes’ at The Manse

He was kind enough to share his recipe for his delicious spiced prunes, which he serves at the breakfast buffet along with thick Greek yogurt and a homemade nutty granola – a perfect breakfast in my books.

Thanks to Chef Wylie for sharing this recipe with Communal Table readers!

Spiced Prunes

500 ml Earl Grey tea

150 ml Marsala wine

100 g brown sugar

Large zest of one orange

1 clove, whole

1 cinnamon stick

1 star anise

250 g prunes

Combine all ingredients, bring to a boil and simmer for 20 minutes. Remove zest and spices. Serve the spiced prunes with the syrup along with yogurt & granola.

The Best Kale Salad with Sweet Sesame Dressing

14 Mar

Kale has become a hot & trendy little vegetable lately, which is fine by me because I love finding it on restaurant menus everywhere I go. But I’ve been a kale admirer for many years and it’ll continue to be my favorite leafy green even when its fifteen minutes of foodie fame are up.

I absolutely love this powerhouse vegetable. Every time I eat raw kale I feel amazing inside. It’s the only food that has an almost instant effect, making me feel like I’m doing my body good by eating it. And it tastes amazing! It’s so earthy and hearty and the flavor changes and intensifies based on what you do with it.

I love it roasted, steamed, sautéed, juiced, baked, and, of course, in ‘chip’ form, but the best way to eat kale is most definitely raw.

I sometimes like to just toss it with olive oil, sea salt, lemon and a touch of maple syrup; but this easy sesame dressing is one of my all-time favorites and it stands up to and pairs so nicely with the boldness of kale.

I make this sesame dressing often. When I feel like cleaning a slightly bigger mess, I use a blender to mix it, which gives a really nice, smooth and creamy consistency. But when I don’t have the patience, I just whisk it up in a small bowl and add the hot water in a little bit at a time while whisking to smooth it out.

The photos here show a dinner salad that I made last week with a mix of red and green kale, raw cauliflower and crunchy bean sprouts. Kale is a great green to eat as a meal because it’s so filling and full of goodness. And it holds up nicely as a weekday take-to-work lunch salad because it doesn’t really get soggy like other lettuces when it’s dressed. 

This dressing would also be amazing on sautéed or steamed spinach with some sesame seeds sprinkled on top.

Kale Salad with Sweet Sesame Dressing

Bunch of kale, washed & torn into bite sized pieces

¼ cup tahini

2 tbsp tamari soy

2 tbsp agave

Hot water, to taste (to thin out the dressing)

Sesame seeds – optional, for sprinkling

Use a blender or a small mixing bowl and whisk. Mix the tahini, tamari soy and agave until blended. Add in hot water a little bit at a time until you get a consistency that you like.

Toss kale with sesame dressing and sprinkle with sesame seeds. 

* I did find this general recipe online somewhere a few years ago but I can’t remember where it came from so I can’t source it properly. 

Mushroom & Kale Polenta Hash with Eggs

11 Mar

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I cherish my weekends. I try to savor every minute of the two glorious days where I can shed (most) responsibility & stress and just be. And savoring them over a delicious brunch is pretty much as good as it gets. 

But Neil and I have made a promise to eat out less and cook at home way more, and that means brunch falls in my hands. 

For some reason, despite being an amazing cook, Neil’s intimidated by breakfast. His creative ideas cease to flow pre-coffee, and just the thought of having to figure out what to eat seems to push him over the edge. Though I don’t mind because breakfast and brunch is definitely my domain. 

I love thinking of interesting breakfast creations, brewing up a pot of good coffee, turning on some weekend-appropriate music and getting to work in the kitchen. 

As much as I love meeting friends for brunch and having someone else cook for me in my down time, taking the time and care to make something beautiful myself and then sitting down with my husband at our own kitchen table to enjoy it, is a bit of weekend bliss. 

Here’s a quick and delicious brunch that I made yesterday, using what we had in our fridge. 

When I spotted the polenta and mushrooms, I imagined an earthy, savory hash to go with eggs. I cooked the eggs medium so that the yolks were still rich and runny but not too thin or liquid-ey when they broke. There’s something so satisfyingly perfect about breaking a rich egg yolk overtop of savory ingredients and taking a bite of everything together. 

With a cup of dark coffee, I think this brunch stands up to the best of them. 

Oh, and it took about 12 minutes to throw together. Way less than standing in a brunch lineup!

Mushroom & Kale Polenta Hash with Eggs 

1 log of Italian-style pre-cooked polenta

Bunch of kale (I used a mix of red and green)

Cremini mushrooms (I used 2 medium-sized ones for two people)

1 large shallot

Olive oil

Thyme-infused olive oil or fresh or dried thyme

Sea Salt

Pepper

Red chili flakes

Eggs

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Cut off a few rounds of the polenta (I used three) and then chop them into small cubes.

Chop the shallot and mushrooms into small pieces and tear the kale into small bite-sized pieces as well.

Heat a bit of olive oil in a pan over medium heat and sauté the shallot for a few minutes, seasoning with a bit of salt. Add in the kale and mushrooms and cook for a few more minutes before adding in the polenta cubes. Sautee everything together, season with pepper and a few chili flakes.

I drizzled just a little bit of Nudo’s thyme-infused olive oil into the hash, which added such a great earthy compliment to the mushrooms and kale. You could use some dried or fresh thyme instead, but only use a little bit so as not to overwhelm.

Cook on medium-low heat until the polenta cubes are a bit crispy on the outside.

Meanwhile, heat another pan and cook a few eggs sunny-side up. I cooked ours to medium so the yolk was still gloopy and runny, but not too liquid-ey.

Plate the polenta ‘hash’ and top with eggs.

Happy weekend!

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