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Learning About Canadian Beef

19 Jul

Canada Beef

Aside from being lots of fun and something that Jenny and I enjoy doing together, this blogging thing has connected us with some interesting opportunities. There have been chances to preview new restaurant menus in Toronto. We were part of an all-Canadian recipe creation event centred around Canadian beef, for which we invented our now infamous Moogarita beef cocktail.

And now, something new: I’ve been chosen as a brand ambassador for Canadian Beef, and I’ll be spending the next year helping to share information, create recipes and just generally shine a light on one of Canada’s most important agricultural products.

Why am I doing this, you might ask? I’m not doing it because Canadian Beef is paying me (though they are compensating me for the monthly assignments I’ll be completing, with a small stipend each month). And I’m not doing it because they’ll be supplying me with some great beef products to showcase and cook with (although they will be, and I’m quite excited at that).

I am doing this because I’m passionate about good food, and good food produced in Canada by hardworking farmers and others. And I’ve always loved cooking with beef, and sharing my recipes with others. And as a Canadian Beef brand ambassador, I’ll get to do just that, and hopefully help Communal Table readers boost their beef knowledge.

My first monthly assignment was simply to read through the beefinfo.org website, to better understand how the organization supports Canadian beef producers and consumers. And they wanted me to share with you my favorite part of the Canadian Beef website. As a cook who is always looking for ideas on recipes and techniques, the Cooking Lessons section was definitely the one that jumped out at me. It’s packed with step-by-step lessons, with how-to videos and recipes to match, on how to expertly prepare your beef using a variety of methods—grilling, braising, etc.

And you can submit a question for the Beef Expert, which will be answered on the site. Currently there are more than 20 questions with answers listed, everything from “How large a roast do I need to buy?” to “Do you have some tips for cooking beef in the slow cooker?”

Check out the site when you have a chance!

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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

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.

Toronto Taste Preview with Chef Roger Mooking

15 May

Roger Mooking Toronto Taste

Less than two weeks to go before Toronto Taste takes over the Royal Ontario Museum! On Sunday, May 27, more than 60 of Toronto’s best chefs and 30 wine, beer and other beverage producers will gather at the ROM to serve Toronto food lovers in support of Second Harvest.

Earlier this month, Communal Table spoke with Chris Zielinski, executive chef at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, about cooking, Toronto and why he’s participating in this year’s Toronto Taste. This time around, we connected with Roger Mooking – Juno Award-winning musician-turned-chef, Food Network personality and this year’s Toronto Taste co-host (with Bob Blumer).

How many times have you participated in Toronto Taste? What do you enjoy most about it?
This is my second year. I most enjoy seeing all the chefs there with their proudest dishes on display, and knowing that we get to hang out once a year and feed many, many people in the process after the event is over.

What makes you, as a chef, want to participate in Toronto Taste?
We play a part in feeding 700,000 meals over the course of a year. That is important. It also showcases the best of the city’s culinary scene in one place. I participate because I’m sympathetic to families in need and we are able to help them and have a fun day all at the same time

What have been the biggest influences on your cooking, in terms of people, places, cuisine styles, etc?
My biggest influence has been curiosity. I’m forever curious about food, ingredients and techniques, and this drives me forward every single day.

Before you became a chef, you were a Juno Award-winning musician with Bass is Base. How is making music like cooking?
Music and cooking are creative outlets. Sometimes the recipe has instruments, musicians, and lyrics. Sometimes the song has ingredients, pots, pans and some knives. In the end, all the artists’ tools are used to make something to consume, either with the ear or your mouth.

Over the past two years, you’ve sold your stakes in both your Toronto restaurants, Kultura and Nyood. Besides Toronto Taste and the Food Network, what other projects are currently keeping you busy and inspired?
My album that I just finished; my show Heat Seekers; new show Man, Fire, Food; recipe testing; and many other things that will be coming out over the next while… can’t let out all my secrets. Stick around – I’ve got a few more tricks up my sleeve.

Eating Raw with Doug McNish + a Giveaway!

22 Apr

Parsnip carrot pesto fettucine

Several factors have prompted me to reconsider how I eat over the past couple of years. The first thing is simple enough: I’m getting older, and if I’m going to continue to eat bacon and foie gras from time to time, I know I need to focus on lighter and healthier meals when I’m not consuming rich foods. Also, I’ve slowly but surely gotten onboard with Jenny’s fascination with vegetarian cooking. And with my sister-in-law embarking on a career as a holistic nutritionist, I’m getting healthy eating info from yet another source.

So when I was sent a copy of Toronto chef Doug McNish’s first cookbook, Eat Raw, Eat Well, my curiosity was piqued. While I can probably count on one hand the number of raw food dishes that I’ve eaten, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the flavours in most of them (If you haven’t had the jicama fries from Belmonte Raw, for example, you’re missing out.)

Raw food, in a nutshell, is vegan in most cases, and focuses on maintaining as many of the nutrients as possible in the ingredients used. That means that most of the dishes are prepared without heat, and those that do use heat are not heated beyond roughly 105 degrees. Given those parameters, someone who has never eaten raw might be excused for thinking that raw food must be boring and limited in flavour. But as I pointed out above, that doesn’t have to be the case, and the 400 recipes in Doug McNish’s book prove that. There is a wide variety of recipes for smoothies, breakfast foods, soups, mains and desserts that incorporate vegetables, herbs, fruit, grains, legumes and nuts to create flavourful and multi-textured meals.

But there are clearly some limitations for those not fully invested in the raw food lifestyle. First, the heated dishes sound interesting, but require a food dehydrator (something my cramped kitchen isn’t equipped with). I can get my oven down as low as 170 F, but only a dehydrator can cook at a controlled 105 degrees, the temperature called for in most of these recipes.

The book also doesn’t include cooking times. The recipe we tried, below, was prep-heavy. And while the 25 minutes or so that I spent preparing “noodles” with a veggie peeler was fairly low-stress work, I’m not sure I would have felt the same way on a Tuesday evening as I did on a Sunday afternoon. With cooking times listed, it would be easier to gauge which recipes one should attempt with the time they have available.

Finally, there’s no nutritional value listed for the recipes in Eat Raw, Eat Well. We were concerned with the amount of protein in the dish we prepared, so we ate it alongside salmon.

That said, this book is definitely staying in my kitchen. I can see myself working more raw meals into my diet, and I do think that a lot of the recipes here would also make for amazing side dishes next to fish or egg dishes.

Want to win a copy of Eat Raw, Eat Well? We have one copy to give away to a reader of Communal Table. Just leave a comment below, letting us know why you want to win this book. We’ll pick a winner from all comments left by next Saturday, April 28, and post the winner’s name here as well as letting them know via email. Good luck!

UPDATE 4/30: Congrats to “Onadistantshore,” who won our draw for a copy of Eat Raw, Eat Well. Enjoy the book!

Carrot parsnip fettucine McNish raw

Doug McNish’s Pesto-Coated Carrot and Parsnip Fettuccine (Makes 2 servings)

When Jenny and I made this, we decided to use just two garlic cloves instead of the three called for below, and in hindsight I think I’d use a bit less hemp seed oil than called for (maybe 2/3 of a cup). But we loved the fresh, vibrant flavour of the dish, and we’ll definitely make it again.

3 large carrots, peeled
3 large parsnips, peeled
1 tbsp (15ml) tbsp cold-pressed (extra virgin) olive oil
1⁄4 cup (60 ml) freshly squeezed lemon juice, divided
1 1⁄2 tbsp (22 ml) fine sea salt, divided
3⁄4 cup (175 ml) cold-pressed hemp oil
1⁄2 cup (125 ml) raw shelled hemp seeds
3 cloves garlic
3 cups (750 ml) chopped fresh cilantro leaves

1. Using a vegetable peeler, peel carrots and parsnips into long, thin strips, dropping into a bowl as completed. Add olive oil, 1 tsp (5 ml) lemon juice and 1⁄4 tsp (1 ml) salt and toss until vegetables are well coated. Set aside for 10 minutes, until softened.

2. In a food processor fitted with the metal blade, process hemp oil and seeds, garlic and remaining lemon juice and salt, until somewhat smooth but the hemp seeds retain some texture. Add cilantro and process until chopped and blended, stopping the motor once to scrape down the sides of the work bowl. Add pesto to fettuccine, toss well and serve.

Excerpted from Eat Raw, Eat Well by Douglas McNish © 2012 www.robertrose.ca Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

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