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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

Simply Assembled: Dilled Potatoes with Smoked Salmon

18 Feb

Recently a friend asked me “Do you guys ever make anything bad? Do you ever screw up?” Though I would like to have answered “No. Never. We’re perfect. In every way,” that is far from the truth. Neil and I love to cook but we have a ton to learn and we do, of course, sometimes screw up. A Parmesan ice cream incident and a tofu cupcake mishap are among two of the worst. We just don’t post about the screw-ups!

I know it may also appear that we’re constantly busy cooking up delicious things, but just like most other regular day-job-holding home cooks we have our moments of  “Let’s just order a pizza” or frequent nights when we’ll get home from work, look at each other and say “What should we do for dinner? I don’t feel like cooking.” That’s usually followed by blank stares and silence, followed by whining (mostly be me), and usually ending with Neil suggesting take out sushi from our favorite place or burgers from one of the many burger joints in the east end and me vying for vegetarian or Moroccan food from around our hood.

Sometimes we’re in the mood to eat at home, but are more interested in easily assembling something instead of actually cooking. We have a few go-to meals for such occasions, and one of those is dilled potatoes with smoked salmon and a very leafy green side salad.

I once saw my celeb crush Jamie Oliver make this easy meal on his beautiful show Jamie at Home. I didn’t write down the recipe (because there really isn’t one) but the idea stuck with me and we’ve been making it ever since. Jamie is known for using really fresh, simple ingredients and producing dishes that are bursting with flavor. I love how he just adores every ingredient he throws into a dish and speaks of each one like they’re all his little muses.

This meal is not fancy or fussy but it tastes amazing and is really quick to throw together if you have all the ingredients in your fridge. It took us 20 minutes from starting to sitting down at the table.

If you’re wondering what’s up with the rainbow smoked salmon in the photos, we decided to try President’s Choice Vodka Beet Smoked Atlantic Salmon, mostly because it was on sale, but also because we were curious. It’s really beautiful and would go over well for a nice brunch or dinner party, but we didn’t really think it added much to our dinner, aside from some nice color on the plate. The taste is really no different from their regular smoked salmon, though it may have been a bit less smoky-flavored. I actually like to use gravlax for this meal because it’s thinner and more delicate and kind of melts in your mouth, but any smoked salmon will do.

Don’t skimp on the herbs for the potatoes though – they really make the dish. And I find that the horseradish sauce just brings it all together nicely. We’re big fans of horseradish sauces for lots of different dishes, as evidenced here and here.

The other night when we made this, we served it with a simple raw kale salad dressed with olive oil, lemon juice and a touch of maple syrup. And I have to say, this dinner pairs well with a really good cold beer on the side. We had Beau’s All Natural Lug Tread Lagered Ale (we’re really loving their beer as well as their cool packaging) and it was the perfect complement to our simple but fulfilling Jamie O-inspired meal.

Smoked Salmon with Dilled Potatoes

Sauce:

Plain yogurt or sour cream

Lemon juice

Lemon zest

Prepared white horseradish

Potatoes:

A bunch of red or white mini potatoes

Dill, chopped

Chives, chopped

Good quality extra virgin olive oil

White balsamic or apple cider vinegar

Lemon juice

Sea salt

If you’re using frozen smoked salmon, take it out of the freezer a few hours before eating and let it thaw in the fridge.

We like to cut the potatoes into halves or quarters, depending on their size. Place potatoes in a steamer and steam until soft. We actually steam ours in the microwave for approximately 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, mix all sauce ingredients in a small bowl. I never measure; just use your judgment and adjust to your taste.

Get your herbs and oil and vinegar ready so you can quickly work with the potatoes while they’re steaming hot. Prepare your salad.

Once the potatoes are done, transfer them to a big bowl, add in the herbs, drizzle in olive oil, vinegar, lemon juice and a good amount of sea salt.

Bring everything to the table and let everyone serve themselves. The best way to eat this meal is to take a heaping spoonful of potatoes and then top them with pieces of smoked salmon and a little bit of sauce. Try to get a little bit of everything in each bite.

Pasta Pinwheels: Dinner Made Easy AND Pretty

17 Feb

A few weeks ago I found myself in the organic section of the grocery store picking up a box of kamut lasagna noodles. This was a strange occurrence for me, not because of the kamut but because I have never purchased a box of lasagna noodles. Ever.

I have never made a lasagna from scratch myself. There, I’ve admitted it.

And here are some reasons why:

–       I will never be able to make a lasagna that even attempts to rival Neil’s aunts (all of his aunts!) and his mother’s, for that matter. (aunts make the classic Italian meat version, mom makes a creamy béchamel version. Neil daydreams often about both)

–       I pretty much know for sure that any homemade version I attempt has no chance standing up against the one from 7 Numbers in Toronto either.

–       Making a whole lasagna for just two people seems silly somehow, and I never think of making it for guests.

–       Lasagna just always seems like a major pain in the butt to make. When I think of the steps involved compared to the simplicity of the final product, my brain shuts down.

So there I was staring at the kamut lasagna noodles thinking “but they’re so pretty!” I realize this might make me a little crazy, but there it is. I’m big on the aesthetics of my food. I’ve always thought that lasagna noodles, with their curly edges, are quite an attractive noodle and they’re usually hidden among the layers of sauce, cheese and other typical lasagna accoutrements.

I bought the box and figured I’d either research some cool way to use them, or surprise Neil sometime by trying to finally make my own lasagna. The first option came to fruition after a little scan on FoodGawker. As soon as I spotted some photos of what some people call “lasagna rollups”, I knew what to do.

I wasn’t in the mood for the classic flavors of lasagna and didn’t want to make a tomato-based sauce. I also didn’t have a lot of time.

What followed was one of the easiest and quickest dinners I’ve ever made. I’m not joking. This recipe both showcases the ‘prettiness’ of the lasagna noodles and comes together faster than anyone would believe once they see and taste the final result.

You can obviously use this same idea with any kind of filling and/or sauce and you can make as many or as little as you want at a time.

I think I’ve found a new go-to weeknight dinner, and a reason to finally stock my cupboard with some of the most attractive noodles around.

Pasta Pinwheels

Lasagna Noodles – I used Kamut noodles, 10 of them (you can make as much or as little as you want, just adjust the filling accordingly)

Filling:

1 475g tub ricotta (I used light ricotta)

Zest of 1 lemon

Handful of basil, chopped

Handful of Italian parsley, chopped

Pepper

Sauce:

1 large shallot, chopped

Handful of dried porcini mushrooms, reconstituted in 1 ½ cups of hot water

3 Tbsp butter

1 cup white wine

Half a lemon

Boil the lasagna noodles according to the package, but make sure you leave them al dente. If they’re too soft, they’ll fall apart and will be hard to work with.

Preheat the oven the 350 degrees.

In a bowl, mix all five ingredients for the filling.

Chop the soft porcini mushrooms but reserve all of the liquid they were sitting in.

In a sauté pan, cook the shallot in a little bit of olive oil on medium heat until translucent. Add in the butter and sauté a few minutes more. Season with salt and pepper.

Add in the white wine and slowly raise the heat to medium high as you mix, to cook off the alcohol. Add in the chopped porcinis and 1 cup of the mushroom liquid. Squeeze in the juice of half a lemon, mix and take off heat.

When the lasagna noodles are done, drain them and run cold water over them to cool them off.

Place noodles on a cutting board or clean, dry surface. Spoon the filling mixture onto each lasagna noodle. Roll each noodle slowly, using both hands.

Place all the pinwheels into a glass baking dish and pour the mushroom sauce overtop.

Place in the oven for about 15 minutes to heat everything through.

To serve, sprinkle with freshly grated parmesan cheese and a little bit of chopped parsley.


How to Make Store-Bought Fruitcake Taste Delicious in 5 Easy Steps

9 Dec

Fruitcake alcohol cheesecloth

I love Christmas. I love the traditions, and the fact it involves hanging out with family. And, of course, I love the food – with one exception: fruitcake. I know I’m not the only person who shares a hatred of fruitcake. There are many of us fruitcake haters. And yet, there it is every year at Christmas, sitting there, taunting us. Dry, mealy doorstops, or moist, overly sweet doorstops, filled with little gross bits of candied who-knows-what.

I’m sure that, somewhere, there is a 12-step program for fruitcake haters. But I’ve looked, and I can’t find it. And until I do I know I’m going to be faced with Christmas after Christmas of bad fruitcake being offered to me by good people. I could continually refuse every offered piece of fruitcake and risk offending some of the people I love most. Or, I could take matters into my own hands. I’ve decided to try doing the latter this year.

My problem with fruitcake isn’t so much fruitcake itself. I have actually enjoyed a few homemade fruitcakes. But mostly, the omnipresent fruitcake at Christmas is the store-bought type. Most of these are terrible, but this year I thought ‘what if I could take a terrible product and actually make it taste reasonably delicious?’ This got me thinking of the fruitcakes I’ve enjoyed, and what made them taste so good. The answer, I’m convinced, is alcohol. And so, last weekend I decided to take two store-bought fruitcakes and, using alcohol and some tips and tricks picked up through various online sites, turn them into tasty, alcohol-soaked treats.

Here are my 5 easy steps for making store-bought fruitcake taste delicious:

Fruitcake brushed alcohol

    1. Brush: Unwrap your store-bought fruitcake. Place it on a work surface and, using a toothpick or another thin, sharp tool, poke small holes all over the surface of the cake – top, bottom and sides. The holes, apparently, will help the fruitcake absorb all the delicious alcohol you’re about to douse it with. After you’ve covered your cake in holes, pour a small amount of alcohol into a bowl; I used about 1/3 of a cup for a small cake. As for what alcohol, rum or brandy is pretty traditional for soaking fruitcake, but almost anything will work. I had two cakes, and used madeira on one and marsala on the other. Dip a pastry brush into the bowl of booze, and brush alcohol across all surfaces of the cake. You’re glazing it more than soaking it at this phase.

Cheesecloth soaked in alcohol

    1. Soak: Measure a length of cheesecloth long enough so it can be wrapped around your fruitcake two or three times, then immerse the cheesecloth into the bowl of alcohol. Soak the cheesecloth thoroughly in the alcohol.
Cheesecloth

Trying to tame the cheesecloth…

    1. Wrap: Pick up the soaked cheesecloth and gently squeeze out some of the alcohol so that the cloth is wet, but not dripping. Lay soaked cheesecloth out on a work surface, then wrap the fruitcake in the cheesecloth, folding the cloth around the cake as many times as you can (two or three times). Wrap the cheesecloth-covered cake tightly in aluminum foil. If you’re doing several fruitcakes in different kinds of alcohol, make sure to label them by alcohol type. Store the fruitcake in a cool, dry place.

Fruitcake wrapped in cheesecloth

    1. Reapply: Every week or so, unwrap the foil and sprinkle the cheesecloth-covered cake on all sides with more alcohol. Any of the websites and recipes I’ve looked at have said you can repeat this step weekly for up to several months – the longer you age the fruitcake, the deeper the flavour. I started my fruitcake experiment on December 4 and I want to eat them by Christmas, so I’ve decided to apply more alcohol every 5 days or so until then.

Fruitcake labelled Madeira

  1. Wait: From everything I’ve read, this seems to be the key step. As mentioned in step 4, the fruitcake apparently tastes better the longer you wait. Makes sense: more alcohol applied, more alcohol soaking-in time, more delicious alcohol infused cake.

I’ve just hit step 4 for the first time today. When I went to apply more alcohol to my fruitcakes they already felt fairly moist, which makes me think that the alcohol is soaking in nicely. It also makes me worry that after two or three more alcohol applications, I could end up with logs of alcoholic mush. Time will tell, I suppose.
I’ll follow up this post in a couple of weeks with the end results of my fruitcake experiment. Until then, if you have a good method for making store-bought fruitcake taste better, let me know in the comments section below. Or, if you have a good homemade fruitcake recipe, feel free to leave it here. I’m not much of a baker, but given the right recipe I might be persuaded to make my own fruitcake next winter.

Weeknight Comfort Food: Eggs in Tomato Sauce

28 Nov

Eggs poached in homemade Italian tomato sauce

When Neil and I first met, we both brought some of our own food traditions into our relationship. And with Neil’s half-Italian background (and the fact that both of his parents are amazing cooks) there were a lot of delicious and simple classic Italian recipes and techniques that he brought along with him – the most important being homemade tomato sauce.

I’m not talking about some secret family recipe that takes slaving over for hours. The tomato sauce that Neil taught me to make from scratch is so simple, easy and quick that I can’t believe I ever used to buy prepared jarred sauce (and I never will, ever again!).

Of course we sometimes alter the recipe, but the basic ingredients are always there; olive oil, fennel, shallot, strained Italian tomatoes, basil. The fennel is essential to the sauce because it adds sweetness and richness. And this simple sauce is the base for one of our favorite comfort food meals: Eggs in tomato sauce.

Neil’s dad used to make this dish for him when he was a kid and I know that it’s a recipe we’ll keep making forever and pass on to our family. We make it all year long, but it’s a weeknight staple when the weather turns cold. It’s everything I crave on a chilly, wintery night.

We used to make a simple sauce with eggs poached inside and eat it all with crusty bread. But eventually, as we evolved the recipe, we started adding vegetables and sweet potatoes and now it’s become a satisfying and full meal (no bread needed, though it’s always a bonus treat and handy to sop up all that leftover sauce in the bowl!).

There’s a similar Middle Eastern dish called Shakshuka where the idea is the same but the spices used are much stronger and the flavors are completely different. Neil and I can’t seem to stray from this version though, where the Mediterranean flavors are so fresh and simple. It may look like you’re eating a big bowl of plain old sauce, but this dish is really more like a stew. It’s rich, savory, a little sweet, layered with flavor and so comforting.

The eggs take more or less time depending on how you like them cooked. Neil likes his a little runny so he can mix the yolk into the sauce for added richness. I like mine cooked a little more so that the yolk is just to the point of holding solid and a little gelatinous but not hard. You can usually tell by looking at them and touching them lightly with a spoon.

Eggs in Tomato Sauce

Base:

Olive oil

Fennel, about half a bulb cut into small pieces with the fronds reserved

1 large shallot (or half an onion), chopped into small pieces

1 bottle (or jar) of strained Italian tomatoes (*note: the ingredients in your tomatoes should be tomatoes and salt or just tomatoes – as pure as possible)

A handful of basil, chopped

Balsamic vinegar

Veg:

1 Sweet potato, peeled and cubed

1 Yellow pepper, cubed

Broccoli, cut into pieces (we use pieces of the stem cut into rounds)

* note: You can add any veggies you like or omit them completely. But either way, you need to make the basic sauce with the fennel and shallot as a base.

Eggs (we usually make 4 and eat 2 each)

Parmesan cheese, freshly grated

Salt and pepper

Heat a good amount of olive oil in a deep pot and add fennel (with fronds) and shallots. Add some salt and sauté on medium heat for a good 8-10 minutes to bring out the sweetness.

Add the sweet potato and cook for a few more minutes. Add the peppers and broccoli and cook for another minute or two.

Add the entire bottle of tomatoes and a little bit of water (I add a bit of water to the bottle and swish it around to get every last bit of tomato).

We use different brands but always pure strained tomatoes in the bottle

Add the basil and some salt and pepper and mix well. Add a splash of balsamic vinegar for flavour and to ensure that the eggs poach properly.

Bring the sauce to a boil then cover, reduce the heat and let the sauce simmer. Simmer the sauce for a minimum of 15 minutes to let the flavors come together. At that point, you can keep simmering to deepen the flavors or (if you’re really hungry) you can move on to the eggs. Taste the sauce before adding in the eggs and make sure you’re happy with the amount of salt and vinegar.

Turn the heat to low. I always crack my eggs into a small bowl and then slide them into the sauce from there. And I sort of carve out little trenches in the pot for each egg to sit and cook without interfering with each other.


Cover the pot and cook on low heat for approximately 10-15 minutes, making sure to check on them every few minutes to see how they’re cooking. Once the whites turn solid it’s just a matter of how you prefer the yolks to be cooked. I usually try to take Neil’s out first so they’re gooey and runny and leave mine for longer so they’re a little more solid and gelatinous.

Using a soup spoon or ladle, transfer the eggs to big bowls and surround them with heaping amounts of sauce and veg.

Top with freshly grated parmesan cheese and more salt and pepper, to taste.

Cozy up and enjoy with a big spoon, crusty bread if you’re so inclined, and perhaps even a glass of red…

This may seem like a hassle but I promise you, it takes hardly any effort once you get going and it’s so worth it. You’ll definitely have leftover sauce which you can use the next day mixed into pasta or even just on its own. I threw a can of kidney beans into my leftover sauce and ate it cold for lunch. Molto bene.

Simply Assembled: Mango Salad with Mint and Ginger & Kale ‘Chips’

6 Sep

On a recent trip to my hometown of Montreal, my sisters and I were inspired to make a fresh and healthy meal together after traipsing through the Atwater Market.

Using fresh ingredients and our favorite herbs and flavors, we created an amazing mango salad that needed no dressing at all.

I quickly pickled a red onion based on this recipe that I’ve made before. But to be honest, I didn’t even measure any of the ingredients or look at the recipe and proportions. We didn’t have enough rice wine vinegar so I used what we did have then topped it up with white balsamic, which I brought to a boil with some sugar, salt and pepper. I omitted the mustard seed and bay leaf because we didn’t have those either but no big deal, the onions still came out great. Once the vinegar came to a boil, I removed it from the heat and tossed in one whole red onion, sliced thinly. I let the onion sit in the vinegar cooling and pickling for about 45 minutes and then strained the pretty hot-pink slices and threw them right into the salad bowl.

It’s worth the effort because in this salad, the flavor from the pickled onions replaces the need for dressing. I think pickled onions are my new favorite ingredient. I can’t seem to stop making them and adding them to everything.

My sister came up with the idea to add grated ginger and lime zest, which brought so many layers of flavor to this colorful salad. She also chopped up the mint and cilantro extremely finely, which helped distribute the herbs evenly throughout, making sure every bite had a nice mix of each.

To assemble the salad – Mix in a large bowl:

3-4 Mangos, sliced into thin strips

Yellow, Red or Orange Pepper, sliced into thin strips

1 Pickled Red Onion, in slices

Fresh Cilantro, chopped very finely

Fresh Mint, chopped very finely

Grate a good amount of fresh ginger directly into the bowl

Add the grated zest and juice of 1 lime into the bowl and mix it all together.

We served this refreshing salad with bun-less homemade lamb burgers and oven-roasted kale ‘chips’ which you can make in a flash for one of the healthiest and tastiest side dishes ever. I always feel so good after eating kale and this is a great way to get a good dose of the healthy green.

To make the ‘chips’: (yes I know, they’re not really chips, but they’re an awesome alternative and they seriously taste amazing!)

Throw a bunch of cleaned and dried kale onto a baking sheet, brush with a bit of olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt. Then toss into a 400-degree oven for about 5-8 minutes, until crispy. Don’t overcook the kale though, because the ‘crispier’ it gets, the more of a mess it is to eat. You just want the flowery edges to be nice and crispy and the stems to be soft and tender.

Simply Assembled: Watermelon and Feta Salad with Pickled Onions

25 Aug

Some recipes are almost non-recipes. You know, the ones that are so easy it’s really more about assembly and not so much about cooking?

I love those recipes. I’m really quite good at making them. Because the truth is, in our house Neil is the real ‘chef’ and I’m just a food-lover who likes to bring flavors and textures together in interesting ways and assemble dishes that taste and look amazing.

This is one of those dishes, but it’s not just the ease of making it that makes it so good. The flavors in this super-quick salad come together beautifully and simply, really showcasing each ingredient. And with watermelon in season, it’s the perfect time for it. Not to mention the fact that it looks great on the plate.

I can’t take any credit for this salad. I didn’t come up with the recipe (in fact, I stole it from Neil’s mom who is both a ‘chef’ like Neil and an ‘assembler’ like me) and I don’t even know where it originally came from, but it’s so uncomplicated and flavorful that I had to share it.

I made this the other night to bring to a dinner party with our friends Paul & Lisa (of The Hip and Urban Girl’s Guide) and it was a hit. It was a great prelude to Lisa’s delicious Paella and white sangria.

The salad looks great plated individually (as pictured above) but for a party, it’s just as easy to plate it on an oversized platter and let people help themselves. Just make sure not to toss this salad, it needs to be served in layers, without blending it all together. The flavors need to stand alone to work together.

Watermelon and Feta Salad with Pickled Onions

Arugula – for this salad I like the spicier wild version instead of baby arugula

Watermelon cut into chunky cubes

Feta cheese cut into chunks or crumbled – I used a firm Canadian feta

Homemade Pickled onions (recipe below)

Balsamic drizzle – I use a store-bought balsamic glaze. Definitely an ingredient worth keeping in your pantry and you can find it at most grocery stores.

Pickled red onions:

1 medium red onion, sliced

1 1/2 cups rice wine vinegar

1 Tbsp. sea salt

2 Tbsp. white sugar

1 Tbsp. yellow mustard seeds

1 tsp. black peppercorns

1 bay leaf

Bring all but onion to a boil over med-high heat.  Remove and stir for one minute to dissolve sugar completely.  Immediately add onion slices.  Let stand 15-20 minutes until onion is bright red.  Once cooled, store the onions in the fridge until you’re ready to top the salad. Remove the onions from the liquid but don’t rinse them off. You can remove the peppercorns with your hands as well as some of the mustard seeds, but I like to leave them in and add them to the salad along with the onions.

To assemble the salad:

Line individual plates with arugula.  Scatter watermelon pieces overtop, then the feta.  Top with a good amount of pickled onions and drizzle with balsamic glaze.

There isn’t any other dressing – the onions and the balsamic create all the flavor that you need and the feta adds that hint of salt and richness.

I love these pickled onions and will definitely make them again for other salads and to use as a condiment. They’d be great on burgers or sandwiches!

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