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Carbonara, Real and Re-imagined

22 Jun

Carbonara smoked bacon garlic scapes

Growing up with an Italian background, I’ve developed a passion for the great food my relatives introduced me to throughout my childhood. Generally though, I’m not one who believes that there are rules around Italian food that must be followed at all times… with three exceptions: bruschetta is pronounced “bru-sketta,” sugar doesn’t belong in tomato sauce, and spaghetti carbonara contains no cream. Ever.

While the name carbonara is derived from the Italian for “charcoal burner,” the dish’s origins are a bit murkier. One take is that it was called carbonara simply because the pepper resembled tiny flecks of coal. Another story says carbonara was created by coal miners as a quick meal that was easily prepared at job sites. I personally like this story best – because really, what self-respecting Italian preparing for a long stretch away from home wouldn’t pack some dried pasta and cured pork products?

The beauty of carbonara lies in its simplicity. Ultimately, it’s just pasta, pancetta, eggs and pepper. Beyond that, variations are hotly debated among carbonara purists. Some insist that only spaghetti be used, while others (myself included) say any noodle is fine. Some add onions, some garlic, and others use both. While pancetta is most common, some use guanciale instead. The thing everyone seems to agree on is that if it contains cream (relatively common in restaurants), it’s not carbonara.

I usually stick to the basics when I make my carbonara, while adding onions most of the time for a bit of extra flavour. Of course, I also don’t get to make it for dinner very often – its simplicity means carbonara lacks the protein, vegetables and nutrients that Jenny hopes for in a pasta dish. So as much as I get worked up about “real” carbonara, I’m usually trying to find ways to jazz it up and add a bit of nutritional value so my wife will let me make it. Once in a while I’ll add shrimp, or throw in something green and leafy.

eggs smoked bacon garlic scapes

My carbonara craving last night happened to coincide with a visit to the Brickworks Farmers Market this past weekend, which led me to create a version of the dish that – while still abiding by my central rule of no cream – threw out pretty much every other basic tenet of carbonara creation. I’d picked up some great smoked bacon from a vendor at the market, so in that went in place of pancetta. I also picked up some garlic scapes, which I thought would provide a compromise solution between onions or garlic. And I also added some frozen spinach and served the sauce on spelt noodles in order to add some nutrients and fibre. Whether or not the resulting dish was “true” carbonara is perhaps a matter of debate, but it tasted great and satisfied my craving nicely.

bacon garlic scapes chopped egg

Smoked Bacon and Garlic Scape Carbonara

Smoked bacon (enough to make the dish as bacon-y as your little heart desires)
2 garlic scapes
2 eggs
Spinach (ideally a large handful of fresh, though I used frozen spinach, thawed and drained, because it’s what I had on hand)
A cup or so of freshly grated parmigiano and/or pecorino-romano cheese

In a bowl, whisk together eggs, grated cheese and several turns of fresh ground pepper. Set aside.

Dice bacon into small cubes, and dice garlic scapes.

Prepare pasta according to package directions. While pasta is boiling, heat a tablespoon or so of olive oil in a pan over medium-high heat, and sautee bacon and garlic scapes until both become translucent. Then, turn off the heat.

Before draining pasta, reserve a half cup of the cooking water. Temper the eggs by slowly pouring a few teaspoons of this water into the bowl with your beaten eggs, whisking quickly as you do.

The next couple of steps require some quick work in order to retain the heat in the pasta, which will be used to “cook” the egg:

Toss drained pasta in the pan with the bacon and garlic scapes. Transfer to a large serving bowl, then slowly pour in egg/cheese mixture, tossing the pasta to coat as you pour. The goal is to have the egg sauce heated by the pasta, but to not get so hot that it curdles like scrambled eggs.

Serve in bowls, topped with more grated cheese and fresh ground pepper.

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Memorable Quickies

15 May

Life has conspired yet again over the past couple of weeks to keep us busy on things unrelated to food and blogging, which is turning Communal Table into a sad little corner of neglect in the awesomeness of the World Wide Web. When Jenny and I get sidetracked with work and other duties of life, we don’t spend nearly as much time as we’d like experimenting in the kitchen. Instead, we resort to eating out a bit too often, or cooking the quick, simple standby meals that we’ve already blogged about.

In an effort to give the blog a little love even as our kitchen gets ignored, I thought I’d put up a quick post looking back at some of those easy meals we’ve previously written about here, and which we make often when we’re pressed for time. The idea for this post came from a conversation I had recently with my friend Sofi, who writes the great Sexy Typewriter blog. Sofi and I were commiserating about our lack of time for cooking, and she mentioned that she’d love to read a post where we highlight a few quick recipes she can try out.

The three picks here are my top choices from our recipe repertoire for meals I like to make when I only have a small amount of time and energy available for cooking. While I’m not going to claim that these recipes can be prepared in 20 or 30 minutes, it’s a pretty safe bet they can be completed in under an hour.

Eggs Poached in Tomato Sauce

As Jenny mentioned when she wrote this post, this is a quick, comforting meal I’ve been eating for years, and it’s one we turn to often when we just want to put something on the stove to cook that we don’t necessarily need to devote all our attention to. The ingredients are simple, and so are the flavours. But it’s delicious, healthy and suitable for even the busiest weeknights. It’s also a great choice for those evenings when you don’t want to eat meat.

Smoked Salmon on Dilled Potatoes

This one is basically a take on a Jamie Oliver recipe, who usually finds ways to take a few ingredients and quickly whip up something great with them. It’s definitely a lazy-day meal, but the flavours go so well together and the smoked salmon and herbs really stand out against the potatoes. There’s something very summer about this meal, and it’s one I’m sure we’ll turn to often over the next couple of months.

Seared Sirloin with Grapes and Port

This one just sort of came to me one day a couple years ago in a moment of creativity and inspiration. It’s delicious and perfect for our occasional red meat cravings. But the best part is how easy this dish comes together. Sear the meat. Saute shallots and grapes for a few minutes. Add port to pan and reduce to make a sauce. Serve over meat. That’s it.

Pan-seared Halibut with Salsa Verde

24 Apr

halibut with salsa verde

Since we moved to the Danforth East area of Toronto in 2009, I’ve lamented the lack of great places to buy meat and fresh fish. It’s not that there are no butchers or fishmongers in the east end, but they’re few and far between compared to the west end of the city. And you certainly can’t walk into a supermarket on this side of Toronto and buy all your groceries while also having access to an amazing selection of local, organic meats, like you can at Fiesta Farms (a place we love, but which is at the polar opposite end of Toronto from us).

Fortunately, the recent addition of a fishmonger called Hooked on Queen St. E in Leslieville has greatly improved our access to high quality fish and seafood. We’re definitely planning to make this our go-to place for great fish, and we’ll probably do a more in-depth post at some point on the place, its great staff and their focus on sustainable product. In the meantime, definitely check out some of the profiles that others have done.

But back to our first Hooked visit and purchase. I went in one day after work recently looking for a nice, firm-fleshed white fish to go with a salsa verde I was planning to make. A chat with knowledgeable owner Dan Donovan and a quick scan of their selection convinced me that a line-caught B.C. halibut filet was the way to go. The large fish was displayed whole at Hooked, and I liked the fact that they cut it as filets rather than the halibut steaks that seem to be more common, which I find are harder to cook evenly and contain too many pesky bones.

Hooked Toronto B.C. Halibut

Salsa verde, a.k.a. green sauce, is an herb-based sauce common to many countries. The version I made to go with our fish was closest to the Italian recipe, combining the herbs with anchovy, capers and vinegar (traditional Italian salsa verde recipes also contain garlic, which I left out because I didn’t want it overpowering the taste of the fish). I was initially a bit disappointed with the way the sauce tasted on its own, as it was a touch too tart and I’d probably leave out the Dijon mustard next time to cut down on the tartness and bring out the fresh herbs a bit more. But it ended up pairing perfectly with the moist and slightly sweet tasting halibut, which Jenny and I agreed was probably the best-tasting piece of fish we’ve ever cooked at home.

Pan-seared Halibut with Salsa Verde

2 halibut filet portions
12 capers
2 tsp Dijon mustard
1 tsp anchovy paste
2 TBS red wine vinegar
1/4 C high-quality olive oil
1 large handful of fresh parsley
1 large handful of fresh basil
1 large handful of fresh tarragon
A few mint leaves
Salt and pepper

For the salsa verde:
Chop all herbs and add to food processor along with half the olive oil and all other ingredients. Run the food processor to combine and blend everything, adding more of the olive oil gradually to get the sauce to reach the consistency you want – more oil for a thinner sauce, less for a thicker version. I added the entire 1/4 cup and still ended up with a relatively thick sauce that sat nicely on top of the fish.

For the fish:
Rub a small amount of olive oil on the bottom of a pan, and heat pan over medium-high heat for a few minutes to get it nice and hot. Season fish with salt and pepper and place in hot pan. Cook about four minutes, then flip and cook another three minutes (watch your timing here; it’s way better to slightly undercook good fish than overcook it).

Plate seared halibut filets and top each with a generous serving of salsa verde. Serve with a simple, fresh salad.

Talking Grilled Cheese

14 Apr

A grilled sandwich of melting cheese, on a white plate.  Wholewheat bread.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, my mom is an amazing and adventurous cook, which meant I was exposed to interesting foods and different cultural dishes from a young age. As much as I always enjoyed trying new things, I also loved the same foods all kids love – like grilled cheese.

April is Grilled Cheese Month, and it’s fitting that a classic sandwich that’s popular with kids, university students and adults alike should be the subject of a month-long celebration. In recognition of the grilled cheese’s universal appeal, we asked some of our favourite chefs, cheese experts and food personalities to share their thoughts on the sandwich.

Michael Simpson Leslieville Cheese Market

Photo courtesy of CheeseLover.ca

Michael Simpson
Michael is owner of Toronto’s Leslieville Cheese Market East and West (one of our favorite places in the city if we’re in the hunt for a good grilled cheese!), and co-owner of Leslieville Cheese Market North in Flesherton.

What’s your favorite place in Toronto to get a grilled cheese?
Aside from our own grilled cheese, of course! The grilled cubano sandwich at Delux Restaurant on Ossington is fantastic, with a few kinds of ham and a few kinds of cheese.

Describe your most memorable grilled cheese experience (a memory from your childhood, or a grilled cheese you had somewhere, or something you created yourself).
My mum used to make what we called mousetraps – a slice of white bread with a slice of processed  cheese, baked in the oven. Bacon or tomato made it extra special. We used to watch it grill until the cheese turned dark brown on top. Ketchup on the side, of course. These days we would have to dress up the name and call them “open-faced grilled cheese mousetraps.”

If you were to make yourself a grilled cheese today, what would be on it? (kinds of cheese, other ingredients, if any)
Actually, I’ve been into sweet grilled cheeses lately. I had a tip from a friend who recommended cream cheese mixed with strawberry jam, then grilled with Nutella. It’s fantastic. We tried it at the Cheese Market. People were intrigued, but still ordered the tried and true savoury options, so, sadly we gave up on the Nutella grilled cheese.

Anthony Rose Drake Hotel

Anthony Rose
Anthony is chef at The Drake Hotel, which regular readers of Communal Table will know is one of our top picks in Toronto for great food, drinks and live entertainment.

What’s your favourite place in Toronto to get a grilled cheese?
The pressed cubano at Delux on Ossington.  Cubano yes, grilled cheese deluxe absolutely!

Describe your most memorable grilled cheese experience.
My chef de cuisine’s Aunt Dot used Kraft singles, white bread and covered the sandwich in Campbell’s cream of celery soup. It’s amazing.

If you were to make yourself a grilled cheese today, what would be on it?
Heirloom tomatoes, really old cheddar and bacon, with ketchup on the side.

Stephen Gouzopoulos L'Unita

Stephen Gouzopoulos
Stephen is head chef at the popular Toronto Italian restaurant L’Unita.

What’s your favourite place in Toronto to get a grilled cheese?
My mother’s house.

Describe your most memorable grilled cheese experience.
My mother’s grilled cheese is without a doubt the most memorable. Simple and clean: buttered whole wheat bread and aged cheddar cheese. Often accompanied by a bowl of her fantastic home made tomato soup. Reminds me of summers off in grade school. Too bad that doesn’t happen anymore. I would love a summer off!

If you were to make yourself a grilled cheese today, what would be on it?
Sourdough bread, aged white cheddar, Berkshire bacon and red onion, with a cold Duggan’s #9 IPA.

Georgs Kolesnikovs

Georgs Kolesnikovs
Georgs, a journalist with a passion for cheese, runs the blog CheeseLover.ca and is founder and director of the Great Canadian Cheese Festival, which will make its debut at the Crystal Palace in Prince Edward County, Ontario on June 4-5, 2011.

What’s your favorite place in Toronto to get a grilled cheese?
Leslieville Cheese Market makes a grilled cheese worth driving into Toronto for. (I live out in the boonies.)

Describe your most memorable grilled cheese experience.
Significant Other and I were cruising on a chartered trawler yacht in southwest Florida. We dropped the anchor in a pretty cove for lunch one day and she knocked my socks off (Actually, put me in bad need of a nap) with the combination of creamy camembert, sharp cheddar and tangy blue on a light rye with caraway – buttered as if there were no tomorrow.

If you were to make yourself a grilled cheese today, what would be on it?
Unsalted butter is the secret to making the best grilled cheese sandwiches. From the look of what’s in our cheese bin today, I’d go with Avonlea Clothbound Cheddar seasoned with Le Bleu d’Élizabeth on a caraway rye.

Christine Cushing

Christine Cushing
Christine, one of Canada’s best known food personalities, hosts Fearless in the Kitchen on OWN.

What’s your favorite place in Toronto to get a grilled cheese?
If I want a grilled cheese I usually make it myself.

Describe your most memorable grilled cheese experience.
The grilled cheese always takes me back to being a kid and coming home from school. My dad would always make me the simple white bread grilled cheese for lunch and that’s the first thing we cooked together. He would show me how to flip it in the pan without using a spatula, so I have great memories of that.

If you were to make yourself a grilled cheese today, what would be on it?
The best grilled cheese ever is one I made myself and it was on an epsisode of Christine Cushing Live. I was brainstorming with the whole cooking team. The recipe came together with us all just throwing ideas back and forth. It’s not traditional in any way and I only make it when fresh Greek figs are in season. It starts with Italian or French rustic bread, shaved parmigiano reggiano, ultra thin slices of prosciutto di Parma and Greek figs tossed in olive oil and a drizzle of Greek thyme honey. I fry it in olive oil until crisp on the outside. The combination of sweet crunchy figs, salty prosciutto and parmigiano is enough to make me cry. Just saying…

 

Christine was kind enough to share the recipe for her amazing grilled cheese sandwich with us. She says Greek thyme honey (sometimes called Greek amber honey) can be purchased at any Greek specialty store and some Longo’s locations. She adds that any honey can be substituted, though the flavour of course won’t be exactly the same.

4 slices Ciabatta bread, about 3/4-inch thick
4 slices prosciutto di Parma
4 slices soft Italian Asiago cheese
2 slices shaved Grana Padano cheese
4 fresh figs, quartered
2 tbsp. good quality honey
4 tbsp. olive oil

Heat 1 tbsp. oil in a medium nonstick skillet on medium-high heat. Add the figs and sauté about 1 minute or until starting to turn golden in colour. Add honey and toss to coat. Continue sautéing for about 30 seconds or until caramelized.  Set aside to cool.

On 1 slice of the ciabatta layer 1 slice of Asiago, 1 slice of prosciutto, 1 slice of Grana Padano, and half the figs.  Then add 1 more slice of prosciutto and one more slice of Asiago. Top with another slice of ciabatta bread. Brush both sides of the panino with olive oil.  Repeat to make one more panino.

Heat a nonstick skillet on medium heat. Add the panini and cook, pressing lightly with a spatula, for 2 to 3 minutes per side or until golden and the cheese is melted. Serve. Makes 2 grilled cheese sandwiches.

Brie & Strawberry Jam Omelet with Strawberry Panzanella Salad

13 Apr

It’s been a little quieter than usual around here lately. We’ve been dealing with some career changes and general life shifts, not to mention unavoidable winter colds and flu bugs over the last few months. All of that has been keeping us more occupied in ‘real life’, which has meant less time for us to devote to our blogging life and cooking in general.

We’re slowly getting back into a groove, but the last few weeks we’ve been leaning towards cooking meals that are simple and fast while still being interesting.

Last week I reached into my ‘archives’ when we wanted to make a meatless dinner that was in line with the changing weather and freshness of spring.

I discovered the unexpected pleasure of the brie and strawberry jam omelet many years ago on a visit to Montreal. It stood out for me on the brunch menu at Orange Café in the NDG area of my hometown. I rarely use this adjective when describing food, but I have to say that this is one ‘sexy’ omelet. It’s the perfect combination of textures, flavors and even colors on the plate. I even made it for Neil when we first started dating in an attempt to impress his advanced palate.

Once I started making it at home for brunch and dinner, the very idea of it inspired other omelet combinations like cheddar and spicy mango chutney, or havarti and pear & ginger preserves.

But this one’s the ultimate. L’original.

This time around I used goat brie for a little more earthiness and Greaves Rhubarb Strawberry Jam, which I absolutely love. There’s not much to this simple omelet, but the key for me is using just the egg whites. With the egg whites providing a neutral base, the cheese and jam really shine and stand out. I also like the texture of an all-egg white omelet better than what you get when you include the yolks.

But we needed a side dish. Something that could stand up to the fabulousness of the omelet and complement it at the same time.

Somehow the idea of a fresh strawberry panzanella came to me. Panzanella is a rustic Italian bread salad that’s usually made with stale bread, tomatoes, onions and a simple vinaigrette. I always order it when I spot it on restaurant menus because it’s usually delicious, however simple.

Neil was the one who actually executed our take on the classic salad after we talked about some ideas, and it turned out even better than I had hoped. The sweetness of the fresh strawberries worked so well with the tartness of the balsamic and the shreds of basil. And we actually used fresh bread instead of day-old and found that it gave a really nice spongy consistency on the inside, and a toasty crunch on the outside. It was a great texture combination and the flavors of each ingredient came through. It really was a great complement to the omelet. We ooh’ed and ahh’ed with every fresh, tasty and flavorful bite.

What better way to welcome spring to our table?!

Brie & Strawberry Jam Omelet with Strawberry Panzanella Salad (serves 2)

For Strawberry Panzanella Salad:

Approx 8 fresh strawberries (3-4 per person)

Good quality balsamic vinegar

Pepper

Approx 3/4 to half a loaf of crusty bread (we used Brick Street Bakery‘s wheat bread)

Olive oil

Sea Salt

1 clove garlic, sliced into thin slices

1 handful of basil leaves, chopped

Cucumber, chopped

Arugula

For Omelet:

Approx 6-7 thick slices of brie (we used goat brie)

Good quality strawberry jam (we used rhubarb strawberry)

Approx 6-8 egg whites (I actually used egg whites from a carton – so much easier!)

Cooking spray

To Assemble Salad:

Slice the strawberries and add them to a bowl with a couple of tablespoons of good balsamic vinegar and a grind of pepper. Leave to marinate for 30 minutes to an hour.

Cut the bread into cubes and toss with a few drizzles of olive oil and a few grinds of sea salt.

Slice the garlic into thin slices that will be easy to remove later from the pan.

Heat a small amount of olive oil in a pan on medium heat and cook garlic for a few minutes. Lower the heat to medium low, add bread cubes into pan and cook for a good 7-10 minutes until nice and brown on the outside.

Remove the bread cubes from the pan, leaving the garlic behind, and set aside to cool.

When ready to assemble, add the cooled bread cubes to a bowl. Add in a little bit of arugula. You don’t want to add as much as you would in a regular salad, the bread and strawberries are the main ingredients here. Add the chopped cucumber and basil. Drizzle in some good quality olive oil and toss into the salad with a little bit of sea salt.

Spoon the balsamic strawberries into the salad, reserving some of the liquid. Mix the salad and taste. Add more of the balsamic to taste. Toss everything together well and serve.

To Assemble Omelet:

Spray an omelet pan with a little bit of cooking spray and heat the pan over medium low heat.

Add in the egg whites and leave them for a few minutes to firm up. Slide a thin spatula around the edges to lift and separate from the pan.

Layer the slices of brie down the middle of the omelet or just off to one side, depending on how you like to fold your omelet. I decided to fold the two sides in so I layered my ingredients into the middle but you can also attempt to flip one side onto the other. Spoon a generous amount of jam onto the brie.

Fold in the sides and slide the spatula underneath to loosen the omelet from the bottom of the pan. Let it cook for a few minutes to let the cheese melt and jam warm through. If you’re feeling daring, you can flip the omelet over and let it cook on the other side for a few seconds so the brie melts on both ends and the jam gets sticky and cooks as it oozes out of the edges.

Cut the omelet in half to serve two and plate with some Strawberry Panzanella salad.

Middle Eastern “Caesar” Salad

8 Apr

A few weeks ago some friends and I threw a baby shower lunch for a wonderful mom-to-be. We put out a delicious spread, including some hummus that I quickly jazzed up with a sprinkling of za’atar. I couldn’t believe how many people actually made a point of asking me what it was or why the hummus tasted so good! Multiple people commented on how delicious it was and hardly any of them had heard of my incredibly handy ‘secret ingredient’.

If you haven’t tried za’atar, take a look for it next time you’re in a spice shop or specialty food store. It’s a blend of herbs including oregano & thyme mixed with sesame seeds, sumac and salt. It’s often used in Middle Eastern cooking and it’s a truly divine spice mix to add to your spice collection.

One of my favorite ways to eat it is just simply sprinkled onto lightly olive-oiled pita bread, warmed and toasted in a toaster oven. It makes a great accompaniment to salad.

But an idea came to me that builds on that idea and brings the za’atar and bread right into the salad itself. Enter homemade za’atar croutons.

I never think to make croutons myself and I don’t particularly like store-bought ones, but after proving to myself how easy and painless it is to make them at home, I have a feeling I’ll be adding them to my repertoire. It was so easy and they tasted so good without being too buttery or overloaded with oil and grease.

I didn’t really know how this salad was going to turn out, but the flavors of tahini and lemon were no-brainers when I was dreaming up what would blend well with my za’atar croutons.

Putting this whole salad together took very little time, effort and amount of ingredients. I made it as a side dish to accompany fish, but I think it would make a killer main dish salad with the addition of baked falafel balls or grilled chicken.

The dressing is so creamy and rich and the croutons are so decadent and flavorful, that upon taking the first bite, I immediately thought “Middle-Eastern Caesar!” In reality, it has nothing to do with a true Caesar salad, but it’s reminiscent of one in it’s own special, spiced-up way.

Middle Eastern “Caesar” Salad

Dressing:

1 big Tbsp tahini

Juice of half a lemon

Onion powder to taste

Cumin to taste

Olive oil

Hot water

Sea salt

Croutons:

Good quality bread (fresh or day-old), cubed

Olive oil

Za’atar

Sea salt

Salad:

Arugula

Cucumber, chopped

In a bowl, toss bread cubes with a few drizzles of olive oil and a little bit of sea salt. Add about a teaspoon of za’atar (or to taste) and toss to coat.

Heat a frying pan on medium heat and add in the bread cubes. Toast for approximately 10 minutes, constantly turning the pieces of bread until all sides are nice and golden.

Remove from heat and set aside.

In a small bowl, whisk the tahini with the lemon juice. It will firm up quite a bit. Add in small amounts of hot water, a little bit at a time, until you get a nice smooth consistency. Drizzle in a little bit of olive oil and mix. Add some onion powder, cumin and a little bit of sea salt. Whisk everything together and set aside.

In a large serving bowl, add the arugula and cucumber. Dress it with the tahini dressing and toss well. Add in the za’atar croutons and give it one final toss before serving.


Romesco-inspired Shrimp Pasta and a Contest

19 Mar

I don’t usually get too excited about jarred or packaged food products. That’s not to say we don’t use them in our kitchen. As much as I’d always like to make my own pesto, or cook and puree my own tomatoes for sauce, the logistics of finding the time and the fresh ingredients needed for these things is not always possible. And so, we keep some jarred, tinned or otherwise packaged products on hand in our kitchen out of pure necessity. Once in a while, we’ve been so happy with the taste and versatility of these kinds of ingredients that we’ve written about them here.

When our friend Mary Luz Mejia of Sizzling Communications mentioned a couple weeks ago that Food Network celeb Christine Cushing was adding a new product to her line of food items and that she could get us a sample to try, I was initially reluctant. In this case, that reluctance came mostly from knowing what the product was – roasted peppers in a jar. I’ve had jarred roasted peppers many times before, and they’re fine in a pinch but generally all taste the same. Usually they’re marinated and packed in a ton of oil so they keep longer, which strips out a lot of the roasted flavour of the peppers.

Christine Cushing's Latest Discovery

But when I read that this version contained only fire-roasted and slow cooked red Shepherd peppers “a splash” of Greek extra-virgin olive oil, white wine vinegar and sea salt, I was intrigued enough to agree to try a jar. Frankly, I’m really happy I did. There’s really no way I can write this without sounding like I’m being paid to shill for Christine Cushing (trust me, I’m not), but I was a little bit blown away when I first tasted the product, straight off a spoon. The jar is full of roasted and cooked down peppers – almost the consistency of a puree or spread – and really only contains a splash of oil, so that it’s barely detectable. The flavour of fire-roasted peppers really comes through, and there’s no garlic or anything else in there to distract from that taste.

Right now, as the photo above suggests, Christine doesn’t have a name for this product, and she’s looking for one. You can suggest a name on ChristineCushing.com between now and March 31. The name Christine chooses from all entries will end up on the label, and the person who suggested the name will win a year’s supply of Christine Cushing’s Greek extra virgin olive oil, pasta sauces, her “latest discovery” red peppers, and her cookbooks signed personally for the winner.

When Jenny tasted these peppers, her first thought was, “I could probably just eat this entire jar on its own, with a spoon.” Her second thought was that they would be great in a pasta inspired by Spain’s famous romesco sauce, which traditionally includes small sweet red peppers called ñora, nuts, stale bread (or toast) to provide bulk, garlic, olive oil and sometimes tomato. It’s often served with seafood. We ran with this idea and created a pasta that combined the sweet and earthy flavour of the peppers with sweet shrimps, peppery arugula and the crunch of toasted almonds. It came together quickly and easily, and tasted fresh and amazing.

Shrimp and arugula cooking

Romesco-inspired Pasta with Shrimp and Arugula

1 jar of Christine Cushing’s red peppers
1 large handful of slivered almonds
A couple of handfuls of arugula
1 clove of garlic, minced
2 TBS red wine vinegar
A pinch of cayenne
12 medium-sized (21-30 count) shrimp

Toast almonds in a dry pan over medium-low heat, stirring constantly until brown and fragrant-smelling. Set aside in a bowl.

Cook pasta – short noodles work best with this sauce, but long would be fine too – and drain, but don’t shake off too much water (it’ll help the sauce come together later).

Peel shrimp, and add to a pan on medium heat with a splash of olive oil, pinch of cayenne and minced garlic. Cook a couple minutes per side until garlic begins to release its scent and shrimp start to change colour. Add red wine vinegar and stir for a few seconds.

Lower heat to medium-low. Stir in jarred red peppers; we ended up using about 2/3 of the jar we had (after eating the other 1/3 on a spoon). Add handfuls of arugula, stirring as you add it in. The arugula will wilt down like spinach, so continue adding handfuls until you end up with an amount of wilted greens that you’re happy with; we used about half of a medium-sized container of arugula.

Add drained pasta and toasted almonds, toss everything together and plate. To up the Spanish-inspired quotient a bit more, I finished each plate of pasta with some grated aged Manchego cheese and a drizzle of good Spanish olive oil.

Peppers jar

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