Archive | Dinner RSS feed for this section

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

21 Feb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s what we used:

4 large scallops

3 pieces of raw squid and a few tentacles

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

Handful of hot/sweet pickled peppers

1 garlic clove, minced

Juice of 1 lime

Really good, strong & fruity olive oil

Salt and pepper

Here’s how we did it:

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

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

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
 

Creamy Whole Wheat Pasta with Smoked Salmon & Chives

7 Feb

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

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

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

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

Creamy Whole Wheat Pasta with Smoked Salmon & Chives 

Whole wheat pasta, cooked al dente and strained

1 pkg smoked salmon, chopped into small bite sized pieces

2 shallots, chopped

Half a bulb of fennel, chopped

Handful of fresh chives, chopped

1 tbsp Dijon mustard

Approx ½ cup half-and-half cream

Splash of white wine

Olive oil

Salt and pepper

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

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

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

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

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

Touring the Mediterranean at Mideastro

31 Jan

Mideastro Toronto

My background is Italian, and Jenny is Jewish. In the five years we’ve been together, we’ve learned that our cultures share a lot of similarities—family is important, people tend to talk loudly and passionately, and food plays an important role in bringing families together to eat, talk loudly and share stories.

Another key similarity lies in the fact that both Italian and Jewish cuisines vary broadly depending on geography. In Italy, northerners will commonly cook with meat and dairy as central ingredients, whereas in the south, the availability of great seafood and the proximity of Greece, parts of Africa and the Middle East influence the flavours of many dishes. Jewish cuisine is even more diverse, influenced by both dietary laws and the food traditions of the various countries where Jews have settled over the centuries.

Last week I had the opportunity to sample the menu at Mideastro Yorkville, which opened last July following the success of the restaurant’s initial Thornhill location. Heading the Yorkville kitchen is chef Benny Cohen, who presents dishes that are Israeli-focused while also incorporating flavours from the many Mediterranean countries that have influenced Jewish cuisine.

“Both my parents are Moroccan Jews who raised me in Israel, where I was exposed to cuisines and flavours from all over the world by the travelling and migrating Jews,” Cohen told me when I asked about what has influenced his cooking style. He says his passion was sparked as a child while learning about Moroccan cooking in the kitchens of his grandmothers, and was furthered by studying at a branch of the Cordon Bleu cooking school in Israel and then working in restaurant kitchens in Spain, Greece, New York and Mexico before coming to Toronto.

mideastro lamb soup

The food at Mideastro draws upon all of these cultures. We started with a tomato-based Moroccan lamb soup, which, despite the Middle Eastern spice profile, reminded me of a much richer version of the classic Italian minestrone – a soup I’ve never particularly liked, while I’d gladly eat Mideastro’s lamb soup again.

Mideastro appetizers

The next plate offered two dishes from the restaurant’s appetizer list. Cohen described his Baladi eggplant as a sort of “bruschetta salad,” combining smoky grilled eggplant, chopped tomatoes, Israeli feta, roasted garlic and herbed tahini. And Lahma Ba’ajin is a Damascus-style flatbread topped with ground lamb, chickpeas, tomatoes and sheep yogurt tahini. Cohen said the flatbread’s origins date back more than 500 years.

carpaccio Mideastro Toronto

We also sampled Cohen’s take on carpaccio. He wraps 12-week-aged waygu beef tenderloin around arugula and thin slices of parmesan, slicing the rolls maki-style and drizzling balsamic and black truffle oil over top. He called this the “lazy” version, because it saves him from having to compose the dish on a plate. But I enjoyed being able to pick up everything in one bite. Also on the plate was a grilled calamari dish, served atop an oxtail lentil pot au feu.

Already feeling full, it was on to the mains. The first we were served was chef Cohen’s take on chraime, a fish, tomato and vegetable casserole with Sephardic roots that he told me is his signature dish. In Cohen’s version, baked snapper is plated on risotto flavoured with harisa, and topped with a tomato-root vegetable sauce flavoured with smoked paprika and fish stock. This was easily the best dish of the night, and it’s definitely something I’d go back to Mideastro to eat again.

Mideastro Toronto chraime fish

We also had Mideastro’s lamb and beef kufta. The spiced ground meat dish is popular throughout the Mediterranean, taking the form of either meatloaf or meatballs and with slight spelling variations depending on the country—kufta in Hebrew, kefta in Morocco and koobideh in Iran. Cohen serves his ground meat on a stew of tomato and eggplant, and tops the dish with a thin, crisp layer of focaccia that the diner breaks open to reveal the meat and vegetables. It’s served with a yogurt and tahini sauce on the side.

kofta Mideastro Yorkville

Finally, we had dessert—a nutella parfait with frozen nutella cream, caramelized bananas and a piece of salted pecan brittle; and Fig Kataiv, which was layers of spiced mascarpone, fresh figs and pistachios sandwiched between crisp layers of shredded phyllo dough. I really enjoyed this one, as the flavours reminded me of both baklava and tiramisu.

desserts Mideastro Toronto

Cohen told me that he thinks the Toronto dining scene has lacked a proper representation of Israeli and Middle Eastern cuisine. “People tend to think of Middle Eastern cuisine exclusively as the fast, street food that can be seen in Toronto,” he said, noting that even the quick Middle Eastern eats so popular here – falafel, shawarma, etc – are pale imitations of the originals due to the fact certain ingredients aren’t available here.

To that end, Cohen says he’s trying to bridge a gap and offer this city a better idea of the dining options, both fast and formal, they’d find around the Mediterranean. “I’m hoping to bring a truly unique experience to Torontonians by bringing the flavours of the Middle East mixed with my expression, my knowledge and my technique in a fine dining setting, and also showcasing a 2,000-year-old voyage of the Jews through history, time and space.”

We Have a Winner…

30 Jan

S. Pellegrino almost famous chef competition

Congratulations to Natalie, who won the $150 gift certificate to Lee in our Almost Famous Chef Competition draw. Here’s what she had to say about her most memorable food experience:

“My top food experience I can remember is a gnocchi dish I had at a little restaurant in Rome. My sisters and I had been backpacking through Europe for a couple of weeks and hadn’t treated ourselves to any “good” food in order to save money, but once we got to Rome we decided to go to a nice restaurant to treat ourselves. There I had the best gnocchi I’ve ever had in my life – I remember wiping every single drop of sauce off my plate. I hope I can remember where that place is if I ever get to go back one day!”

Thanks to everyone for the great comments about your food experiences. I’m glad that we chose a winner at random, because having to pick the best entry from all the stories submitted would have been a difficult task. Natalie’s entry was one of five we received that drew upon an experience in Italy. Others mentioned memorable meals in other parts of Europe, while some had interesting stories to tell from even more exotic locations (Bora Bora, Bali, Peru). One commenter mentioned Treadwell restaurant in the Niagara region, where Jenny and I had one of our most memorable meals a few years ago, and another talked about Chicago, where we’re hoping to finally visit together this year (hopefully we’ll get to eat at Charlie Trotter’s iconic restaurant, which is closing this August after 25 years). For some, the most memorable food experiences took place in their own kitchen. Ultimately, I think the range of stories we read serves as proof of something Jenny and I both believe – wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, food will always be a central part of what makes it special.

I have so many great food memories. But Italy – where Jenny and I travelled together in 2010 – stands out for so many reasons: taking a cooking class in Florence taught by June Bellamy, a native of Burma who’d relocated to Italy in the 1980s to teach both Italian and international cooking; discovering the Florentine delicacy lampredotto – boiled cow stomach served on a bun with salsa verde (sounds awful, tastes incredible) – at Nerbone in Florence’s amazing Mercato Centrale; and a meal at Ristorante Papa Re in Bologna that was life changing (a term I don’t throw around loosely).

Thanks again to everyone for entering – and don’t forget to come back in a few days to see Jenny’s look at all the action from tonight’s Almost Famous Canadian regional finals.

Mushroom Ragout Instead of Meat

20 Jan

mushroom ragout bowl

At the start of January, I decided to give up meat for the rest of the month. I didn’t do it for health reasons, though there are several legitimate health-related arguments for cutting meat out of one’s diet. And I didn’t do it for any environmental reasons, though I do believe that anyone who eats meat should be concerned about how the animals they consume are raised, slaughtered and sold.

For me, it was a personal challenge more than anything. I love meat and I don’t think I’ve ever gone an entire week without eating it, so pledging to go meat-free for a month was going to be tough—and it has been. Truthfully, I haven’t completely eliminated animals from my diet. I decided early on that I would eat fish a couple of times during the month, and I have. And three weeks into this experiment, I’ve eaten meat exactly three times: on the day I decided to go meat-free, my dinner was a pork katsudon bowl at a Japanese restaurant; on one of our regular Friday night dinners with my in-laws, I ate half a chicken thigh; and last weekend I enjoyed an amazing taco smackdown lunch cooked by six different chefs, all of whom used meat as a taco filling. But the fact that I can still remember—and if I close my eyes, still taste—each of these meals proves to me that limiting my intake of meat is giving me an even stronger appreciation of it as more than just a protein to cook with.

And of course, giving up something when you love it means that, inevitably, you’re going to crave it—which brings me to the recipe alluded to in this post’s title. Mushrooms, especially the meatier varieties, can be a perfect substitute for meat if they’re cooked in a dish that brings out their texture and flavour and makes them the star of the show. This recipe was loosely inspired by a mushroom ragout featured in chef Yotam Ottolenghi’s cookbook, Plenty. It came out great, filled me up and definitely didn’t make me miss the lack of meat.

chopped mushroom mix

Mushroom and Lentil Ragout

1 shallot, diced
1 small carrot, diced
A small amount of fennel (or 1 celery stick), diced
A mix of fresh mushrooms (I used cremini, oyster and shitake), roughly chopped
A handful of dried porcini mushrooms, steeped in a cup or so of boiling water for 20 minutes
1 bay leaf
1 can of lentils, drained
1/2 C white wine (NOTE: I didn’t have white wine, so I added 1/3 C of vin santo, an Italian dessert wine)
Ricotta cheese

Remove porcini mushrooms from steeping liquid, and chop them into small pieces. Reserve the steeping liquid.

Heat a couple tablespoons of olive oil in a large pan over medium-high heat. Add shallot, carrot and fennel and sauté about 5 minutes.

Add mixed fresh mushrooms and some salt and pepper. Saute for 5 more minutes, stirring occasionally, then add wine and let it cook off for a couple more minutes.

Add chopped porcini mushrooms, as well as the steeping liquid.

Stir in lentils, and throw in a bay leaf. Turn heat to low and let the ragout simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, until the liquid has reduced by at least half.

Serve in a bowl, topped with a small spoonful of ricotta and a few drops of truffle oil.

mushroom ragout pan

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

15 Jan

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

My tolerance for mediocre restaurant food is reaching new lows.

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

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

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

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

For the Asian Slaw:

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

Grated ginger

2 green onions, chopped

Juice of half a lime

A few splashes of Mirin or rice wine vinegar

A few splashes of soy sauce

A couple of small splashes of sesame oil

Pepper

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

Creamy Sriracha Sauce:

2 Tbsp plain yogurt

1 Tbsp low fat mayo

Chives, chopped

Zest of half a lime

Juice of half a lime or lemon

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

Sea salt to taste

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

For the Seared Tuna:

1 tuna steak – big enough for two people to share

Canola oil

Ground pepper & sea salt

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

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

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

Warm a few whole-wheat tortillas.

Garnishes:

Lime Wedges

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

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

%d bloggers like this: