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Finding My Burger Personality with Canadian Beef

9 Aug

Canada Beef Burger Personality

What’s your burger personality? It sounds like a bit of a strange question, until you take a look at the chart above, from Canada Beef. It’s part of their new campaign to get Canadians thinking about one of everyone’s favorite summer BBQ meals, and what makes an ultimate burger. And since I’m a Canada Beef Brand Ambassador (as I mentioned a while ago), I’m helping to spread the word. You can check out a full description of all the personality definitions here, and get a badge to post on your site to let everyone know what your ideal burger type is.

After many years of trial and error, I’ve discovered that I’m a Naturalist when it comes to burgers. I’m not saying that I don’t enjoy fancy, kicked-up burgers. My mom makes amazing chipotle burgers, and there’s a burger joint in Toronto that tops one of their burgers with foie gras and bacon. I haven’t tried it yet, but I definitely have to soon!

But of all the burgers I’ve made in my own kitchen or on my BBQ, the ones I made a couple weeks ago stand out to me as a revelation. I started with ground beef from Rowe Farms, an Ontario farming co-operative known for their quality product. To that meat I added… nothing. Well, almost nothing. A few dashes of Worcestershire sauce for a hit of that flavour that only Worcestershire can give you, a few grinds of black pepper and a pinch of smoked paprika for some heat and smoke flavour that would only enhance how the burgers would taste on the BBQ.

I also abided closely to two rules that I’d heard many times before about burger-making, but tend to ignore when I’m in a rush to cook. I only mixed the meat enough to blend in the ingredients, and when forming the burgers, I made sure to form them loosely. The more you handle the meat, the tougher it can be when it’s cooked. And densely formed patties don’t cook as well or release juices as nicely as loose ones.

Finally – and maybe most importantly, salt the outside of the patties generously just before putting them on the grill or in the pan. The reason for adding the salt at this stage is, again, to keep the moisture in the meat, making the resulting cooked burgers tender and juicy. Salt is important to creating a great, flavorful  burger. But if you add the salt to the meat before you form the patties, and it’s allowed to season the meat for an extended period of time before cooking, you’ll end up with dense, tightly packed patties – closer to the texture of sausage than a hamburger.

If you’re looking for great burgers made the Naturalist way, it’s as simple as that. So now… what’s your burger personality?

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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!

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

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!

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