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Beer and Food at Aphrodite Cooks

3 Mar

Aphrodite Cooks Toronto

If you’re living in or around Toronto, you know that the past month or so hasn’t been kind, weather-wise. But before we know it, the snow will finally disappear and those of us who’ve been hibernating to avoid the cold will be on the hunt for fun things to do.

In the fall, Jenny and I had the chance to attend a couples cooking class at Toronto’s Aphrodite Cooks, a culinary studio run by chef Vanessa Yeung. From a loft space in the city’s west end, the Aphrodite team offers catering services, hosts food events such as the Reel Eats dinner we attended recently, and offers themed cooking classes throughout the year aimed at couples and singles looking to learn new skills and explore different cuisines.

Our couples cooking class was focused on pairing beer with food. Chef Yeung had invited Roger Mittag, aka the Beer Professor to share his expertise and help determine which beers matched with the meal we were going to prepare: butternut squash and apple bisque; German potato salad; beets with stout and sautéed beet greens; a spicy chipotle beef stew; and, for dessert, pear, almond and cream cheese galette with cinnamon caramel sauce.

Pear galette raw

As we walked in and were each handed an apron and a glass of beer, it was immediately clear the cooking classes at Aphrodite are hands-on, which was great to see. There’s nothing like actually being tasked with chopping, stirring and cooking if you really want to learn how to prepare new dishes. And all the work makes it all the more satisfying to sit down together as a group at the end of a cooking class and eat the food you helped create, as we did at the Aphrodite Cooks class.

Aphrodite Cooks Toronto
Mittag is an actual beer professor – he teaches at Humber College’s School of Hospitality. As we prepared our meal, he gave us a crash course on beer, the beer-making process and how different malt roasts affect the flavour of the finished product. He brought along five different beers for us to sample with our meal. As a beer lover, I’m always happy to discover a new beer, and Roger’s selection helped me do just that: Dominus Vobiscum Lupulus, a Belgian-style microbrew that’s lighter and hoppier than most Belgians I typically turn to, and surprisingly easy to drink considering its 10% alcohol content.

Roger Mittag beer Toronto

Of course, a great cooking class is incomplete if you’re not given the tools needed to recreate the meal at home. Attendees at the Aphrodite Cooks couples class were emailed digital copies of recipes for all the dishes we prepared, as well as a list of all the beers sampled. No note-taking needed!

Check out the Aphrodite Cooks website for a listing of upcoming couples cooking classes (new ones are added to the schedule throughout the year), as well as some of the other great cooking workshops planned (if you’re looking for a fun Mother’s Day experience, for example, consider taking your mom to the upcoming Portugese Mother’s Day brunch).

Beef Roasts and Dirty Little Secrets

24 Jan

oven roast beef

Everyone has his or her own dirty little secrets. Some bloggers even write about those secrets. Up to now, I haven’t been one of those bloggers.

Here’s my dirty little secret for today: I’m quite comfortable in the kitchen, and there are few dishes I haven’t attempted to make, or wouldn’t consider attempting. But I’d never made a roast of beef until recently. I have no idea why, really. In theory, it’s dead simple. You find yourself a large cut of beef, prep it with a spice rub, or even just salt and pepper, and throw it in the oven for several hours until it’s done. Really, a roast does most of the cooking for you.

Of course, that may be why it took me so long to make my first beef roast. I like to play in the kitchen. My brain rationalizes cooking as an active thing—chopping, mixing, stirring. Putting something in the oven or a slow cooker and leaving it be just kind of freaks me out, I guess.

But my most recent assignment as a Canada Beef brand ambassador was to cook a roast of beef—which was exactly the nudge I needed to finally cross this one off my never-cooked list.

Canada Beef’s consumer information site, BeefInfo.org, has a ton of useful tips on making a roast of beef—everything from what cuts to look for, to how long to cook the roast, and of course, recipe ideas. I certainly scoured the site as I was figuring out how to tackle this meal.

One of the most daunting, and eye-opening, elements for me was how to buy a roast. Frankly, I always thought that a beef roast was a beef roast. But it turns out that there are several roast cuts you can choose from, which come from different parts of the cow. Premium roasts come from the loin and rib; they’re more tender, but more expensive. Then there are cuts from the hip. They’re leaner and cheaper. I opted for the latter category, buying a sirloin tip roast.

wet rub for meat

I made a wet rub for my roast, mixing 1.5 teaspoons of smoked paprika, a half teaspoon each of cinnamon and cumin, one minced garlic clove, a tablespoon of Dijon mustard and a few generous grinds of salt and pepper, plus a few drops of water to bring everything together. I covered the roast in the rub and let it sit in the fridge for a couple of hours so the flavours could work their way into the meat.

To cook my roast beef, I followed Canada Beef’s tip of starting the process by oven-searing the beef. Place the roast in a shallow roasting pan, and cook uncovered in a 450 F oven for 10 minutes, before reducing the heat to 300 F for the rest of the cooking time. To be honest, I didn’t think this got the best sear on the meat and I’ll try their alternate suggestion next time—searing on the stove top in a bit of oil, before putting it into the oven at 300 F.

roast beef pan

From there, as Tom Petty once sang, the waiting is the hardest part. Cooking time will depend on the weight of your roast and the degree of doneness you want from your meat. Check out the cooking time chart here for a guideline, but a foolproof method is to use a digital meat thermometer (the team at Canada Beef were kind enough to send all their beef ambassadors one to cook with); you select the type of meat you’re cooking, the doneness level you want (rare, medium or well-done), and the thermometer lets you know when your roast has reached the target internal temperature.

When my roast was done—I bought a five-pound roast to serve a small crowd, and was going for medium-well, so the cooking time was a little over three hours—I let it sit for 20 minutes or so before slicing. This is an important step if you want your roast to be tender and juicy after you cut it.

Turns out that all my food abandonment issues were for naught. The roast turned out great, and it gave us plenty of leftovers for lunch. And, really, what’s better than an easy, hands-off dinner that’s sure to leave you with bonus meals?

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

Smoked Potato Towers with Chorizo and Arugula Pesto

16 Jun

Smoked potato tower chorizo pesto

Here’s a little piece of info I’m not sure I’ve shared before with readers of Communal Table. A long time ago (about 10 years or so), in a land far, far away (Winnipeg, Manitoba), I was hired in my first job as a trade magazine editor. The task: create Canada’s first magazine devoted entirely to the potato. As a twenty-something from Toronto who’d never set foot on a farm, let alone pulled a potato from the earth, I immediately thought two things: one, the magazine was destined to be a spectacular failure; and two, my career in magazine publishing was going to be brief and disasterous.

A decade later, I can happily report that I’m still working in magazines. And, my colleagues and I managed to create a successful magazine (which is still publishing today, long after my reign ended). As dumbfounded as I was by the idea that some city kid should be running a magazine devoted to Canada’s most important produce crop, I really enjoyed the time I spent learning about all aspects of potato growing, production and marketing. So when Jenny and I were invited to participate in a food blogger competition, sponsored by Ontario’s own EarthFresh, to create a recipe using the company’s Klondike Rose potatoes for its Foodies for Klondike Rose Contest, I jumped at the chance to shine a spotlight on potatoes once again.

After brainstorming a few recipe ideas, my mind drifted to a barbecue we’d been at a couple weeks earlier, where a friend made smoked pulled pork. While I’ve smoked meats and fish a couple times, I’d never tried to smoke a potato. And since Jenny and I are always up for a new culinary challenge, the idea behind this recipe for smoked potato towers with chorizo and arugula pesto took shape from there.

Potatoes wood chips smoker box

This recipe is essentially a three-part process. While it’s time-consuming to prepare the homemade chorizo (which I did Mexican style, in that there’s no sausage casing, but using more Spanish flavours), make the arugula pesto and smoke the potatoes, none of the steps are difficult. This is a definite weekend dish, something to share with friends or family while sitting on a patio and enjoying summer.

Smoked potatoes on pan

Smoked Potato Towers with Chorizo and Arugula Pesto (Serves 4)

For the arugula pesto:
1/3 C grated Pecorino Romano cheese
2 large handfuls arugula, chopped
1 handful parsley, chopped
1 handful of pine nuts, lightly toasted in a dry pan
1/4 C good olive oil, preferably Spanish
A pinch of salt

Add all ingredients into a food processor. Blend until  well combined, adding a few more drizzles of olive oil as you go to get the right consistency (you want it fairly thick, but more of a puree than a paste).

For the chorizo:
1 lb ground pork
1 large garlic clove, finely diced
2 tsp smoked paprika
1 tsp cumin
½ tsp fennel pollen or crushed fennel seeds
1/2 tsp cayenne
3/4 tsp ground black pepper
3/4 tsp salt
1/4 cup water

Mix all spices in a small bowl, and stir in water to make a thin paste. Place ground pork in a larger bowl. Add spice paste and diced garlic and use your hands to combine all ingredients. Cover and refrigerate at least 3 hours, but preferably overnight, to allow flavours to come together.

For the smoked potatoes:

Cut potatoes lengthwise into slices roughly half an inch thick. Use one or two potatoes per person – you should be able to get roughly four oval-shaped slices from each potato.

Coat potato slices in olive oil and a sprinkle of salt. Lay slices on a barbecue-safe pan that will fit across the middle of your grill.

Set up your grill to smoke over indirect heat. (I have a gas grill, so that’s the type of BBQ I know how to smoke on. If you’ve never smoked on a gas grill, here’s a good how-to video). Once your chips have started to smoke, place your pan of potato slices on your middle grate. Close the lid and let the potatoes cook at about 250 degrees F for 30 to 40 minutes. Resist the temptation to lift the lid during the cooking process, since doing so releases smoke needed to flavour the potatoes. Do check the potatoes at the 30-minute mark to see if they’re cooked through. If not, let them cook another five or 10 minutes until they’re finished – the slices should have a nice brown crust on the outside without being burnt, and the inside should be cooked but still fairly firm. Remove potatoes from the BBQ.

While potatoes are smoking, brown the chorizo in a pan over medium heat. Add 1/2 C of red wine. Lower heat and let chorizo simmer for 10 minutes or so, until some of the wine has been absorbed.

To assemble, place one smoked potato slice on a plate. Spread a spoonful of pesto across the slice, and top with a spoonful of chorizo. Top with another potato, spread with another spoonful of pesto, then add another spoonful of chorizo. Top with another smoked potato slice, and sprinkle a pinch of smoked paprika over top to garnish.

Serve as an appetizer, or enjoy as a main with salad and grilled vegetables.

Smoked potato tower with chorizo and arugula pesto

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!  

Chef’s Plate at Royal Playa del Carmen Resort, Mexico

12 Apr

Royal Playa del Carmen Chef's Plate

When Jenny and I decide to treat ourselves to a vacation, my obsession with research inevitably kicks in. Whether we’re headed to a big city like Rome or a small town like Picton, Ontario, I’m determined to track down the best food in a place. And while we love travel, we’re not necessarily all-inclusive resort people. In fact, before I met Jenny I’d never been to an AI. But in our first year together, she convinced me to go to a resort in Mexico’s Riviera Maya, and it turned out to be pretty amazing. Of course, the beach was great, and we were lucky to get good weather. But one of the things that impressed me most was how good the food was at the resort we ended up choosing after my endless hours of research (the Valentin Imperial Maya resort). I was expecting mediocre meat, no veggies and a week of stomach issues, and we got the exact opposite.

It was only a couple years later, after more research (and a bad experience at a Punta Cana resort that shall remain unnamed), that I figured out that a lot of Mexican all-inclusive resorts offered dining choices that were generally of a higher quality than in some other countries. And so, when we decided to head back to Mexico for some R&R at an AI this past winter, I was determined to find another great resort with high quality food. We settled on the Royal Playa del Carmen, and it definitely didn’t disappoint. Not only does RPDC have six different restaurants and a coffee shop, but guests also have access to the restaurants at sister resort Gran Porto Real just across the street.

RPDC also has one “exclusive” restaurant for guests staying in oceanfront or higher rooms, called Chef’s Plate, which we were offered the chance to check out. The Chef’s Plate is smaller and more intimate feeling than most large all-inclusive resort restaurants, with an open kitchen that allows diners to see what 28-year-old head chef Felix Dzib May and his team are cooking. The restaurant offers 7 different rotating menus, each focused on a different cuisine: Iberian, Brazilian, Italian, French, Middle Eastern, British and Mexican. The night we had dinner at Chef’s Plate, they were serving the British menu.

Royal Playa del Carmen Chef's Plate Kitchen

Like many molecular gastronomy restaurants, the cohesion here between the main components of the dish and the more science-focused touches was a bit muddied at Chef’s Plate. And some of the elements promised on the menu didn’t actually end up on the plate – a problem we’ve noticed at several otherwise great all-inclusive resort restaurants. But overall, what was served was artfully plated, well-executed and, most importantly, tasted great.

Here’s a look at what we had. We have a general policy of not using flash for restaurant photos – one of the main reasons we don’t do a lot of restaurant reviews on Communal Table. As a result, the first photos are a bit unclear – eventually we gave up and resorted to using our flash in the mostly candle-lit restaurant. RPDC Chef's Plate Ravioli

Course 1: Fried lobster ravioli, served with a light and flavourful tomato consomme and topped lime lime “spheres” that didn’t quite mesh with the rest of the dish.

RPDC Chef's Plate Soup

Course 2:  Cream of leek soup, topped with bacon “powder”. More proof that you really can’t go wrong with bacon.

RPDC Chef's Plate Scallops

Course 3:  Scallops Mousse. To be honest I didn’t really get the connection between the description of this course and what I was actually eating, and I’m not entirely convinced it was the same scallop course promised on the menu. But what we did get was really good. The scallops were nicely cooked, which isn’t always a given in any restaurant.

RPDC Chef's Plate Beef Wellington

Course 4: Beef Wellington. As you can probably tell, this marked the point where we started using the flash on our camera. A wise decision, considering that this was easily the best course of the evening. I loved the presentation of this, along with the fact that the beef was almost perfectly cooked and really tender.

RPDC Chef's Plate Grouper

Course 5: Grouper. Another dish where what was presented didn’t match what was on the menu. But as a take on the classic battered English fish, this was great – really tender fish in a flavourful coating.

RPDC Chef's Plate Dessert

Course 6: Chocolate Souffle. I love souffle, and it’s not something I’d expect to get at an all-inclusive resort restaurant. While this wasn’t the best souffle I’ve ever had, it was certainly moist and chocolatey, and a great end to a surprising and delicious meal.

Ultimately, while I’m not sure I’d pay the extra cost to stay in the room categories that offer access to the Royal Playa del Carmen’s Chef’s Plate (our Oceanview category room was pretty amazing), we loved our meal and the opportunity to get a glimpse at one of the more innovative and high-end dining experiences you’d find at an all-inclusive resort.

Eggs, Butternut Squash and Zucchini for Meatless Monday

12 Mar

poached egg braised zucchini butternut squash puree

As I mentioned in a recent post, I’ve been thinking a lot more lately about cooking interesting vegetable-based meals. When I cook, my default is usually to start with meat, because most meats are full of flavour and provide a good base around which to build a satisfying dish. But with the right amount of attention and care, vegetables can also star in some amazing meals.

Recently, Jenny and I had the chance to eat at Ursa, a new restaurant in Toronto that’s being talked about because of the kitchen’s focus on using innovative techniques – dehydration, compression, sous vide – to create big flavours while still retaining as much of the nutrients as possible in each ingredient. We split a selection of appetizers and mains in order to taste as much as possible. It was an amazing meal, but my favorite dish – and one of the best restaurant mains I’ve ever eaten – turned out to be little more than a plate of seasonal vegetables. In fact, the dish was simply called “Seasonal Vegetables” on the menu. But what that description didn’t convey was that the textures and tastes of the vegetables on the plate were surprisingly, mind-blowingly bold. The ingredients in the dish still tasted like the vegetables that they were, but each was treated with so much care that the finished product had as much flavour as any great meat dish. Here’s an iPhone shot of the dish, which doesn’t do it proper justice, as it was as beautiful to look at as it was amazing to eat:

Ursa Toronto restaurant

If my meat-free experience in January was an awakening, my vegetarian main at Ursa was a revelation. I’m never going to fully give up meat, but I’m determined to experiment more in my kitchen with the potential to build great recipes around vegetables – and that determination is where the idea for this recipe came from. By preparing different vegetables – in this case, butternut squash, zucchini, kale and tomatoes – using different cooking methods and flavourings, I hoped to create a composed vegetarian dish that was healthy and satisfying, with different tastes and textures on the same plate.

In the end, I think I achieved what I set out to do. Jenny – who loves all things vegetarian – talked about how much she liked the meal, and I really didn’t miss the lack of meat at all. I’m sure I’ll be making this again, and will continue to experiment with vegetables in my cooking.

Poached Egg on Butternut Squash Puree with Braised Zucchini

For the braised zucchini:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

Cut two zucchinis lengthwise into spears

In a bowl, mix together 2 tablespoons of honey, half a teaspoon of cumin, the juice of 1/4 of an orange, and a grind each of pepper and salt

Place the zucchini spears in a small oven-proof dish and toss with the honey marinade

Bake for about 30 minutes, turning spears halfway through cooking time (the goal is to cook the zucchini until it’s slightly limp but not too soft)

For the butternut squash puree:

Empty 1 can of butternut squash puree into a saucepan over medium-low heat

Stir in half a teaspoon of fennel pollen, a grind of pepper and a pinch of salt

Stir in 2 tablespoons of ponzu soy sauce

 

Poach one egg per person. Place some of the butternut squash puree in the centre of a plate, top with a poached egg and four or five of the braised zucchini spears. Serve alongside a dark, leafy green salad – I made a simple salad of kale and cherry tomatoes tossed with a tahini dressing.

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