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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.

Drink Up: Smoked Old Fashioned Cocktail

23 Apr

smoked old fashioned cocktail

If such a thing exists, I definitely have culinary ADD. When I got my ice cream maker a couple years ago, I made ice cream obsessively for weeks and weeks. Then I stopped. Then I started again when the ice cream bug hit me. When I discovered ramps, I cooked with them all the time for a really brief stretch (of course, that’s partly due to the fact that ramp season is so short).

A while back, I discovered lapsang souchong tea. We went for high tea to celebrate my mother-in-law’s birthday. When they brought around the sampler box for everyone to smell the teas and choose the one they wanted, I was instantly drawn to the one that smelled like a campfire. Lapsang souchong is made of mountain-grown tea leaves from China, smoked over pine needles. It’s basically the tea-drinking equivalent of a peaty scotch, or a cigar. And while the intense flavour meant I could only drink one cup of the tea, my brain instantly went to the idea of cooking with it. Jenny and I did just that last year, preparing fish two ways with lapsang souchong.

And then, of course, I forgot about my smoked tea leaves – until just recently, when I started thinking that lapsang souchong might make for an interesting ingredient in cocktails. I started this by making a simple syrup with a 1:1 ratio of sugar to brewed lapsang souchong tea (instead of the water normally in simple syrup), which I left to cool. In the glass, I muddled a thin sliver of orange rind with three dashes of bitters and 0.5 oz of the simple syrup. To that, I added three ice cubes and 1.5 oz of bourbon.

The end result is decidedly Old Fashioned, but with a distinctive smoked flavour that lingers after the sweet and citrus notes fade. I’m more of a Manhattan guy as brown liquor cocktails go, but I can definitely see adding this to my home bartending repertoire.

Have you used lapsang souchong tea in your cooking or drink mixing?

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.

Toronto Taste Preview with Chef Chris Zielinski

17 Apr

Chef Chris Zielinski MLSE e11even Toronto

Toronto Taste is coming. On Sunday, May 27, more than 60 of Toronto’s best chefs and 30 wine, beer and other beverage producers will gather at the Royal Ontario Museum to serve Toronto food lovers in support of Second Harvest.

To help draw attention to one of Toronto’s best food events and most important fundraisers, we’re going to be chatting with some of the participating chefs over the next few weeks. Up first is Chris Zielinski, executive chef at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. With MLSE, Chris is part of the team that oversees game day food at the Air Canada Centre and BMO Field, as well as e11even and Real Sports Bar & Grill at Maple Leaf Square.

A big part of your job at MLSE is creating food that can be eaten while walking around or sitting in a seat. What are the keys to doing this successfully?
At the Air Canada Centre and BMO Field, we are constantly charged with reinventing hand-held cuisine. It has been proven over and over that fans prefer to avoid utensils whenever possible. The keys to success for hand-held foods are not at all unlike the keys to any great dish. The combination of quality ingredients, likeable and recognizable flavours and a variety of interesting textures are the true barometer of any great dish. The other very important piece is to practice it over and over and to make sure that you test it out for other people, not just chefs.

What are you planning for Toronto Taste? What are important things for participating chefs to consider in creating successful dishes?
This year, we will be serving up E11even’s famous Nova Scotia lobster roll. I think, after participating in and attending Toronto Taste so many times, the most memorable moments have come in the form of two bites. Guests have a great deal of food to get through and, unlike a restaurant, you don’t want to have someone hand you a plateful of food, no matter how it tasty it might be. Two memorable bites with layered flavours and contrasting textures always wins!

What do you enjoy most about participating in Toronto Taste?
I have participated at least 10 times, and have attended other years. Toronto Taste continues to be Toronto’s premier culinary event.  As exciting as it is to taste all the great food, my favorite part of the event is the sense of community that comes from getting all the chefs under one roof/tent. As most chefs can attest, we rarely step outside our kitchen and communicate with our peers, and stand beside our city’s top restaurant supporters, the customers!

What drives you to participate in Toronto Taste?
It’s hard to imagine our city without the profoundly important work that Second Harvest does day in and day out. We should be proud that our citizens have taken these matters into their own hands to help the people who need it the most. We should never take their work for granted. There will always be a need for this type of program and hunger will always be an issue. As the chef of one of the largest food outlets in our city, I feel that it’s my civic duty and responsibility to not be wasteful. I would hope all chefs would share that sentiment.

How do the tastes and desires of Leafs, Raptors, Toronto Rock and Toronto FC fans differ in terms of gameday food?
Leafs fans are very tried and true. There is a great mix of business and pleasure, and they love their red meat. The Raptors draw a very multicultural crowd that likes to test the nether regions of our menus. They also seem to be more in tune with some of our healthier options. The Rock crowd is all about family fun. If it’s TFC, it has to go great with beer. The Triple Threat says it all; BBQ pulled pork, smoked beef brisket and grilled peameal bacon all peacefully co-existing on one bun!

What was the draw for you in coming to MLSE?
Over the past 25 years working in fine dining restaurants, I had the opportunity to work with and manage people from all walks of life. It has always been my personal challenge to “make all the pieces fit”. Opportunities to execute that on this scale are few and far between. I’ve always been a fan of the teams, so this was a no brainer. After touring many other sporting facilities, I’ve grown to realize that what we do here, doesn’t really exist anywhere else, and it is a true testament to Richard Peddie’s DIY vision and all the ground work laid out by my predecessors, Brad Long and Robert Bartley.

What have been the biggest influences on your cooking?
Having the chance to work with Susur Lee, back in the day, was a truly eye opening experience. His perspective on food offered a completely different construct that you could never learn from a cooking school. It also was a window on Asian food as a whole. I love the simple magic of Japanese food. So many of my most memorable meals have been based around exceptional pieces of raw fish. Really, any meal that was made with love, from Jose Andre’s insane Bazaar in Beverly Hills, to my Italian mother-in-law’s dinner table in Toronto, are inspiring in their own ways. More than anything, I love to eat!

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

12 Apr

Royal Playa del Carmen Chef's Plate

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

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

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

Royal Playa del Carmen Chef's Plate Kitchen

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

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

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

RPDC Chef's Plate Soup

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

RPDC Chef's Plate Scallops

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

RPDC Chef's Plate Beef Wellington

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

RPDC Chef's Plate Grouper

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

RPDC Chef's Plate Dessert

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

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

Eggs, Butternut Squash and Zucchini for Meatless Monday

12 Mar

poached egg braised zucchini butternut squash puree

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

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

Ursa Toronto restaurant

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

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

Poached Egg on Butternut Squash Puree with Braised Zucchini

For the braised zucchini:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

Cut two zucchinis lengthwise into spears

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

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

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

For the butternut squash puree:

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

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

Stir in 2 tablespoons of ponzu soy sauce

 

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

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
 

On the Menu: Food Events in Toronto

15 Feb

Good food on the menu

Last summer, I put up a quick post I called On the Menu, with a rundown of some cool upcoming food-related events I felt were worth highlighting. At the time, I mentioned that we’d occasionally run more posts listing events food lovers could look forward to. Well, here’s the second On the Menu post. Please excuse that it’s coming almost a year after the first one… but there are a few great annual events coming up in Toronto that food lovers should know about.

Lunch Money Day
February 16

Tomorrow is Lunch Money Day, an annual one-day initiative held by Second Harvest, Canada’s largest food rescue organization. Their mission is to collect donated excess food from manufacturers, retailers and restaurants that would otherwise go to waste, and distributing that food to community organizations across Toronto that are focused on reducing hunger. Lunch Money Day is one of their three major annual events aimed at raising the funds needed for this great organization to operate. On Thursday, February 16, pack yourself a lunch and donate the money you would have otherwise spent on lunch to Second Harvest. Every $10 donated allows Second Harvest to provide 20 meals worth of food to Toronto’s hungry. If you’re around Yonge-Dundas Square at lunch time tomorrow, you can support Second Harvest by buying your lunch from a great lineup of chefs and restaurants that will be selling meals in the square. There are other great ways to donate to Lunch Money Day, too – check them out here.

Torito pasta Viva Italia

Viva Italia! Cucina
Tuesday, February 21 to Friday, February 24

Each year, students in George Brown College’s Italian Culinary Arts program spend four months in Italy, where they have the opportunity to learn new techniques from some great Italian chefs. The week-long Viva Italia! Cucina festival at George Brown College gives the students an opportunity to share what they learned by cooking prix fixe lunches and dinners for diners at the Chef’s House restaurant. The festival also features a one-night-only multicourse dinner cooked by the students alongside a visiting chef from Italy. And the Viva Italia! Gala Tasting Reception brings together a number of great chefs from around Ontario (Rob Gentile from Buca and Fabio Bondi from Local Kitchen, to name just two), who will each present a unique Italian dish they’ve created for attendees to sample alongside a great selection of Italian wines, beers, cheeses and other treats. Jenny and I were at this event last year, and it was definitely a great night (The photo above is of one of our favorite dishes sampled, cooked by Torito’s Luis Valenzuela). If the great Italian food on offer isn’t reason enough to attend, you’ll also be supporting George Brown culinary students, as proceeds from the week’s events go to fund scholarships for the Italian Culinary Arts students. Check out the link above for more info and to buy tickets.

Terroir Symposium 2012 chefs Toronto

Terroir Symposium 2012
April 23

One of my food-related highlights of 2011 was attending the Terroir Symposium, an annual gathering of chefs, food writers, food and wine experts, and others who are passionate about influencing what we eat and how we eat. As a food blogger and relative outsider to the food industry itself, I was reluctant to go, thinking that I might feel out of my element. Turns out those fears were totally unfounded. The energy throughout the day was amazing, and the ideas shared at the seminars, tasting events and the indulgent breakfast and lunch were really inspiring. I’m planning on being there again this year, when the theme will be The New Radicals – a celebration of some of the people who are doing things that are really shaking up how we think about food. Even if you’re like me – not a chef, restaurateur or even a fulltime food writer, just someone passionate about food – this is an event worth attending, both for the lineup of great sessions planned and for the lunch, where chefs from 13 Toronto restaurants (and one from Newfoundland!) will present their interpretations of Chinese dishes.

(The photo above is from a shoot that took place recently, where several of the chefs who will participate gathered to promote the event).

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.

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