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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

Image

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

Image

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!

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. 

Do-It-Yourself Recipes from the AF Chef Competition

12 Feb

As promised, here are two recipes from the AF Chef Competition that have been adapted for all of us home cooks.

The first one is an adaptation of Daniela Molettieri’s winning dish, and the second is adapted from Cole Nicholson’s signature dish.

Filet of Veal Stuffed with Wild Mushrooms, served with Butternut Squash and Roasted Hazelnut Puree

Daniela Molettieri, Institut de tourisme et d’hôtellerie du Québec (Montréal)

Veal tenderloin is stuffed with flavourful mushrooms offering up a tender roast that is delicate enough to serve atop the sweet puree of butternut squash. Serve up a fresh mix of carrots, parsnips and beets for additional colour and vegetables for the dinner plate.

2 veal or pork tenderloins (about 2 lbs/1 kg)

1/2 cup (125 mL) butter

12 oz (375 g) fresh mixed fresh mushrooms, minced

4 shallots, minced

1 tbsp (15 mL) chopped fresh thyme leaves

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/4 tsp (1 mL) freshly ground black pepper

Pinch salt

2 1/2 cups (625 mL) veal or beef stock

1 cup (250 mL) dried mushrooms (about 1 oz/30 g)

Butternut Squash and Roasted Hazelnut Puree:

1 1/2 lbs (750 g) peeled and cubed butternut squash

1/2 cup (125 mL) butter, cubed

Pinch each salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/3 cup (75 mL) chopped toasted hazelnuts

Butternut Squash Puree: Bring squash to boil in salted water for about 20 minutes or until very soft. Drain well and return to pot. Using potato masher, mash well with butter, salt and pepper. Stir in hazelnuts. Set aside and keep warm.

In large skillet, melt 1/4 cup (60 mL) of the butter over medium high heat; cook mushrooms, shallots, thyme and garlic, stirring occasionally for about 15 minutes or until liquid has evaporated. Set aside and let cool.

Using a chef’s knife, make an incision in centre of tenderloin across the middle not cutting through to the other side. Cut along each side to open up a bit more. Stuff centres with mushroom mixture and close back up. Tie tenderloins with butcher’s twine in about 2 inch (5 cm) intervals and place seam side down on parchment paper lined baking sheet; sprinkle with half of the pepper and salt. Roast in 350 F (180 C) oven for about 45 minutes or until meat thermometer reaches 150 F (65 C) for medium rare. Let rest for at least 5 minutes before slicing.

Meanwhile, in saucepan combine dried mushrooms and stock and bring to a simmer. Let simmer for 10 minutes. Drain through fine mesh sieve and return stock to saucepan. Whisk in remaining butter and pepper.

Spread squash in centre of plate and place veal slices alongside. Spoon sauce along meat to serve.

Makes 8 servings. 

Tip: To toast hazelnuts, place in baking pan in 350 F (180 C) oven for about 8 minutes or until golden and fragrant.

Tip: You can serve the rehydrated mushrooms alongside the veal and sauce if desired.

Maple Juniper Venison Loin with Chocolate Infused Red Wine Jus, Leek and Potato Mash

Cole Nicholson, The George Brown Chefs School (Toronto)

Creamy leek mashed potatoes are the base for the slightly sweet maple flavoured venison. The taste is enhanced by the true chocolate flavour that sings in the red wine jus. A few Brussel sprouts with carrots would beautifully finish this earthy dish.

1/3 cup (75 mL) pure maple syrup

3 tbsp (45 mL) juniper berries

2 tbsp (30 mL) chopped fresh thyme leaves

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 venison loin or beef tenderloin (about 2 lbs/1 kg)

Pinch each salt and freshly ground black pepper

Chocolate Infused Red Wine Jus:

1/3 cup (75 mL) butter

1 carrot, chopped

1 onion, chopped

1 leek, white and light green part, thinly sliced

2 bay leaves

3/4 cup (175 mL) Meritage wine

2 cups (500 mL) beef stock

3 oz (90 g) 90% dark bittersweet chocolate

1 tbsp (15 mL) red wine vinegar

Leek and Potato Puree:

1/2 cup (125 mL) butter

1 leek, white and light green part, thinly sliced

1/2 cup (125 mL) chopped fresh parsley

1/4 tsp (1 mL) salt

1 1/4 lb (625 g) Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and chopped

2 tsp (10 mL) chopped fresh thyme leaves

1/2 cup (125 mL) 35% whipping cream, heated

Leek and Potato Puree: In nonstick skillet heat 1 tbsp (15 mL) of the butter over medium heat and cook leeks for about 10 minutes or until soft and golden. Stir in parsley and salt; set aside.

Bring potatoes and thyme to boil in large pot of salted water for about 20 minutes or until tender. Drain well and mash until smooth. Add cream and remaining butter and stir until smooth and creamy. Add leek and parsley mixture into potatoes and stir to combine well. Set aside and keep warm.

In large shallow dish, combine maple syrup, juniper berries, thyme and garlic. Add loin and turn to coat evenly and let marinate for 15 minutes. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Place loin on rack in roasting pan and roast in 450 F (230 C) oven for 10 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 275 F (140 C) and roast for about 1 hour or until meat thermometer reaches 145 F (63 C) for medium rare. Let stand for about 5 minutes before slicing. Slice into 1 inch (2.5 cm) thick slices.

Chocolate Infused Red Wine Jus: In saucepan melt 2 tbsp (30 mL) of the butter over medium high heat and sauté carrot, onion, leek and bay leaves, stirring occasionally for about 10 minutes or until softened and browned. Add wine and simmer for about 5 minutes or until reduced by about half. Add beef stock and bring to a simmer for 10 minutes. Strain sauce through fine mesh sieve into clean saucepan. Whisk in chocolate and remaining butter until melted and smooth. Stir in red wine vinegar.

Place potatoes in line down center of plate and set venison slices along side of potatoes. Spoon sauce around meat on the plate to serve.

Makes 8 servings.

Tip: For a crunchy seared venison, rub loin with maple sugar (available in fine food stores) and sear the loin in a hot skillet before roasting in 275 F (140 C) oven.

Tip: For a smoky addition to your potatoes, add a splash of liquid smoke when stirring together.

The Almost Famous Chef Competition – A Celebration of Young Talent!

11 Feb

I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on the idea of mentoring and just how important it is to offer help, advice and opportunities to young people within specialized industries.

I never would have been able to work my way through and up in the television business – a highly competitive creative industry – without the mentorship and support of some really great people along the way. So it’s now my personal policy to always try to help anyone who asks me for advice or guidance. I’ve been approached by a lot of young, talented and passionate people in the TV biz over the last few months who all seem to have the same frustration: how can anyone move up or get noticed if no one will even give them a chance?

I’m assuming it’s the same story across lots of different industries – especially creative ones – which is why an event like the S. Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef Competition is so important. I’m so happy to support this fantastic event, now in its tenth year, that celebrates young chefs just starting out in their careers.

It was founded in 2002 as a mentoring program that connects top culinary students with established chefs and influential media. It’s helped to launch hundreds of culinary careers and refined the skills of a new generation of chefs.

How cool is that?! Not to mention, inspiring.

Students from over 60 culinary schools across North America compete in smaller regional competitions and the winners from those land a spot in the big finals competition being held next month in Napa, and judged by nationally renowned chefs. 

I had the pleasure of attending the Canadian regional event in Toronto, where six top culinary students from different schools across Canada each had two hours to prepare their signature dish for a panel of distinguished chef judges, kitchen judges and media judges.

And at the same time, us lucky guests got to sample smaller tasting plates cooked by Calphalon’s chefs using the competitor’s original recipes. Such a treat!

George Brown Student Cole Nicholson's Maple & Juniper Seared Venison Loin

Judges had to scrutinize and assess the competitors on a few areas: creativity (plate appearance, taste, texture, and aroma), sanitation at their workstation, personality while being questioned by judges and media, and ability to perform under pressure. 

DeAille (Yee Man) Tam's Halibut marinated w/mirin & sake

At one point, I snuck into the kitchen where the student chefs were hard at work. I expected to see chaos, but the chefs were all working methodically and calmly, with focused concentration.

George Brown Chef School student DeAille (Yee Man) Tam working in the kitchen

I was also extremely impressed with how well they each faced the judges, answering their tough questions with confidence and obvious passion for their craft.

Daniela Molettieri facing the panel of judges

The winner of the night was Daniela Molettieri from Institut de tourisme et d’hôtellerie du Québec, with her beautiful signature dish of fillet of veal stuffed with wild mushrooms served with butternut squash puree. She used milk-fed veal from Quebec and locally grown vegetables, and drizzled the meat with foie gras sauce.

The judges kept saying how impressed they were with a unique cooking technique she used.  I took the opportunity to ask her about it afterwards. She told me that she wrapped the veal in tin foil and submerged the package directly into the flame on a burner for about six minutes, allowing the meat to cook evenly all the way around while staying pink in the centre, much like cooking sous vide. (Apologies to Daniela if I didn’t describe it exactly right!)

Daniela's Winning Dish at the AF Chef Competition

Daniela was confident, well spoken and knowledgeable while still being very humble. The judges asked her why she chose to work at two different stations on opposite sides of the large kitchen, creating more stress for herself. She responded by saying she likes a good challenge. My kind of gal!

Furthering the importance of mentorship, upon winning she said “I owe a lot of my success this evening to Chef Côté, my ITHQ advisor…He spent a lot of time helping me prepare for this competition and his patience really paid off.”

The crowd got to choose a People’s Choice winner, which was given to Anne-Marie Plourde, a student at École hôtelière de la Capitale. She won the hearts of everyone in attendance with her signature dish of Roasted Duck Breast and Gingerbread-Crusted Foie Gras. Our tasting portion of this was so flavorful and delicious.

Anne-Marie Plourde’s Roasted Duck Breast & Gingerbread Crusted Foie Gras

Congratulations to the chefs, who all did a great job competing that night. And best of luck to Daniela, who will be representing Canada at the finals in Napa. You can check out the AF Facebook page for more info and to find out the results!

And for an added treat, I’m going to post two recipes from the competition that have been adapted for all you home cooks. Stay tuned for those, coming up tomorrow…

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