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Celebrating Canadian Beef with Involtini

16 Feb

involtini beef prosciutto

I love meat, though – thanks in large part to Jenny’s influence – I’ve been eating much less of it over the past couple of years than I ever had previously (just check out our Recipes page to see the ratio of vegetarian-friendly dishes to meat-based ones!) 

Last month, I decided to challenge myself to give up meat entirely for 30 days. I was successful, minus a couple of cheat meals I allowed myself because they were special occasions. Over the course of the month, I started to look at restaurant menus differently – instead of automatically ordering the meatiest thing available, I branched out and tried some things I normally might not have. The end result of all this challenge and experimentation is that I’m left thinking about meat in a different way – a way I’d already knew instinctively before, but didn’t always practice; that is, that our access to high-quality meat is something to be celebrated and appreciated, and that the consumption of meat should be seen as an occasion that is likewise celebrated and appreciated. By that, I don’t mean that everyone should necessarily only eat meat on birthdays and holidays, or once a week at Sunday dinners. But those of us who do consume meat should make sure that what we’re eating has been treated as it should: instead of eating any old steak, we should be seeking out the best quality product we can find – from trusted sources who can explain where and how the meat was produced – and cooking it in a way that draws out its full flavour.
 
When I read that Canadian Beef – the association responsible for the support and promotion of Canadian beef and its producers – was funding three scholarships to the Eat, Write, Retreat food blogging conference in Washington, D.C., I decided to put up this post as my entry. Not only would I love the chance to attend a conference that looks like it has a great lineup of learning and networking opportunities, but I also liked that entrants were asked to write about one of their favorite memories involving Canadian beef, or a favorite beef dish.
 
Involtini has to be one of my favorite beef dishes, in part because its preparation incorporates some of the ideas I mentioned above. To me, involtini is a perfect example of what Italian cooking should be, as well as of how I think meat should be enjoyed. It’s about simple, fresh ingredients, combined and cooked gently to allow the flavours to really come together. And it’s really an “occasion” meal: since it takes so long to prepare properly, it’s typically something Italians will make when they come together to celebrate and eat. Even if you’re making involtini to enjoy with just one other person, as was the case for Jenny and I with the version here, the process of cooking, waiting, smelling and anticipating the dish means you really take the time to enjoy what you’re eating and who you’re eating it with.
 
Here’s my favorite beef dish. What’s yours?
 
Involtini with prosciutto, spinach and cheese
 
8 veal or beef cutlets, as thin as possible
8 thin slices of prosciutto
16-24 thin slices of parmesan or pecorino cheese
A large handful of spinach leaves
1 large handful of parsley, chopped
1 large handful of basil, chopped
Zest of 1 lemon
1 or 2 large carrots, diced
1 onion, diced
1 garlic clove, minced
1 bottle of strained tomatoes (a.k.a., “passata”)
 
Lay cutlets on a work surface. Lay a slice of prosciutto lengthwise on each cutlet, then top the prosciutto with 4 or 5 spinach leaves, followed by two or three slices of cheese, and fairly generous sprinklings of chopped parsley, basil and lemon zest. Roll up cutlets from one end to the other, fairly tightly, and place a toothpick in each end of the roll to keep everything together.
Involtini prosciutto cheese
In a deep metal pan over medium-high heat, heat olive oil. Brown each meat roll for a couple minutes on each side (you’ll probably want to do this in two or three batches to not crowd the pan). Set the meat aside.
beef involtini browning pan
In the same pan, add garlic, carrots and onions and saute for several minutes. Deglaze the pan with half a cup of wine (red preferably, but white works too). Add the strained tomatoes and a hit of salt. After a couple of minutes, once the sauce has started bubbling, put the meat sauce, turn the heat down to medium-low and allow to simmer uncovered for 45 minutes to an hour, until the meat is tender and you can’t stand to smell the dish any longer without tasting it. Serve with your favorite sauteed greens or a salad.
veggies saute pan
 

Do-It-Yourself Recipes from the AF Chef Competition

12 Feb

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

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

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

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

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

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

1/2 cup (125 mL) butter

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

4 shallots, minced

1 tbsp (15 mL) chopped fresh thyme leaves

2 cloves garlic, minced

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

Pinch salt

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

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

Butternut Squash and Roasted Hazelnut Puree:

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

1/2 cup (125 mL) butter, cubed

Pinch each salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/3 cup (75 mL) chopped toasted hazelnuts

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

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

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

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

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

Makes 8 servings. 

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

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

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

Cole Nicholson, The George Brown Chefs School (Toronto)

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

1/3 cup (75 mL) pure maple syrup

3 tbsp (45 mL) juniper berries

2 tbsp (30 mL) chopped fresh thyme leaves

3 cloves garlic, minced

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

Pinch each salt and freshly ground black pepper

Chocolate Infused Red Wine Jus:

1/3 cup (75 mL) butter

1 carrot, chopped

1 onion, chopped

1 leek, white and light green part, thinly sliced

2 bay leaves

3/4 cup (175 mL) Meritage wine

2 cups (500 mL) beef stock

3 oz (90 g) 90% dark bittersweet chocolate

1 tbsp (15 mL) red wine vinegar

Leek and Potato Puree:

1/2 cup (125 mL) butter

1 leek, white and light green part, thinly sliced

1/2 cup (125 mL) chopped fresh parsley

1/4 tsp (1 mL) salt

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

2 tsp (10 mL) chopped fresh thyme leaves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Makes 8 servings.

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

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

Creamy Whole Wheat Pasta with Smoked Salmon & Chives

7 Feb

Smoked salmon has become a bit of a staple in our house. Aside from being one of my favorite brunch foods (eaten on a toasted Montreal bagel with cream cheese, lemon & capers, of course) it’s a great ingredient to keep on hand in your freezer for a really quick weeknight meal.

We usually default to this quickly assembled dinner, but last week we thought we’d try something a little different but equally fast and simple.

We made this pasta up as we went along, grabbing a handful of ingredients that felt like obvious companions to the smoked salmon. The soft, salty/smoky salmon worked so nicely with the slight tang of the Dijon, the sweetness of the caramelized fennel and shallot, and the fresh hint of onion from the chives. The nuttiness of the whole wheat pasta really made a difference, too.

I usually squirm when Neil suggests adding cream to a dish we cook at home, since I’ve been conditioned to think that cream sauces are evil and will go directly to my thighs without being ‘worth it’. But as Neil pointed out, a little goes a long way in this pasta. You don’t need to create a full-on sauce, dousing the pasta in cream. Just use enough to lightly coat the bottom of the pan, and you won’t be riddled with the kind of guilt that the likes of fettuccini alfredo inevitably leave behind. 

Creamy Whole Wheat Pasta with Smoked Salmon & Chives 

Whole wheat pasta, cooked al dente and strained

1 pkg smoked salmon, chopped into small bite sized pieces

2 shallots, chopped

Half a bulb of fennel, chopped

Handful of fresh chives, chopped

1 tbsp Dijon mustard

Approx ½ cup half-and-half cream

Splash of white wine

Olive oil

Salt and pepper

Heat olive oil in a large pan on medium heat. Sauté fennel and shallot until they’re soft and caramelized. Season with salt and pepper. 

Add some white wine and cook for another few minutes. Mix in the Dijon mustard and half of your chopped chives, keeping the rest to garnish.

Reduce the heat to low, add in the cream and mix. To be honest, we eyeballed the cream (with me on the sidelines reminding Neil not to add too much!) but probably ended up with just about a half a cup. Enough to coat the pasta but the goal is not to create a full-blown sauce. Make sure you’re heat is down on low so the cream doesn’t curdle.

Add in your cooked pasta while it’s still warm. Toss in the pan to coat the pasta evenly with the sauce. Add in the smoked salmon at the last minute – you don’t want to cook it but you want to incorporate it. 

Serve sprinkled with the rest of the chives. We drizzled our plates with some lemon-infused olive oil, but a little squeeze of fresh lemon juice would be perfect too. 

Mushroom Ragout Instead of Meat

20 Jan

mushroom ragout bowl

At the start of January, I decided to give up meat for the rest of the month. I didn’t do it for health reasons, though there are several legitimate health-related arguments for cutting meat out of one’s diet. And I didn’t do it for any environmental reasons, though I do believe that anyone who eats meat should be concerned about how the animals they consume are raised, slaughtered and sold.

For me, it was a personal challenge more than anything. I love meat and I don’t think I’ve ever gone an entire week without eating it, so pledging to go meat-free for a month was going to be tough—and it has been. Truthfully, I haven’t completely eliminated animals from my diet. I decided early on that I would eat fish a couple of times during the month, and I have. And three weeks into this experiment, I’ve eaten meat exactly three times: on the day I decided to go meat-free, my dinner was a pork katsudon bowl at a Japanese restaurant; on one of our regular Friday night dinners with my in-laws, I ate half a chicken thigh; and last weekend I enjoyed an amazing taco smackdown lunch cooked by six different chefs, all of whom used meat as a taco filling. But the fact that I can still remember—and if I close my eyes, still taste—each of these meals proves to me that limiting my intake of meat is giving me an even stronger appreciation of it as more than just a protein to cook with.

And of course, giving up something when you love it means that, inevitably, you’re going to crave it—which brings me to the recipe alluded to in this post’s title. Mushrooms, especially the meatier varieties, can be a perfect substitute for meat if they’re cooked in a dish that brings out their texture and flavour and makes them the star of the show. This recipe was loosely inspired by a mushroom ragout featured in chef Yotam Ottolenghi’s cookbook, Plenty. It came out great, filled me up and definitely didn’t make me miss the lack of meat.

chopped mushroom mix

Mushroom and Lentil Ragout

1 shallot, diced
1 small carrot, diced
A small amount of fennel (or 1 celery stick), diced
A mix of fresh mushrooms (I used cremini, oyster and shitake), roughly chopped
A handful of dried porcini mushrooms, steeped in a cup or so of boiling water for 20 minutes
1 bay leaf
1 can of lentils, drained
1/2 C white wine (NOTE: I didn’t have white wine, so I added 1/3 C of vin santo, an Italian dessert wine)
Ricotta cheese

Remove porcini mushrooms from steeping liquid, and chop them into small pieces. Reserve the steeping liquid.

Heat a couple tablespoons of olive oil in a large pan over medium-high heat. Add shallot, carrot and fennel and sauté about 5 minutes.

Add mixed fresh mushrooms and some salt and pepper. Saute for 5 more minutes, stirring occasionally, then add wine and let it cook off for a couple more minutes.

Add chopped porcini mushrooms, as well as the steeping liquid.

Stir in lentils, and throw in a bay leaf. Turn heat to low and let the ragout simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, until the liquid has reduced by at least half.

Serve in a bowl, topped with a small spoonful of ricotta and a few drops of truffle oil.

mushroom ragout pan

Seared Tuna Wraps with Mango, Asian Slaw & Creamy Sriracha Sauce

15 Jan

A few weeks ago Neil and I stopped into a mid-range restaurant to grab a quick weeknight dinner. It wasn’t anywhere fancy (and it shall remain nameless) but it was nice enough to expect that the $15-$26 mains should come to the table well-cooked, well-seasoned and well, in restaurant-quality shape. When the $16 tuna wrap promising “seared ahi tuna, asian slaw & wasabi aioli” showed up, we squinted in an attempt to find the scarce pieces of cold tuna stuffed inside the oversized, overly-bready wrap, could barely detect any Asian flavors in the ‘slaw’, and couldn’t taste or see even a hint of wasabi aioli. We were peeved. Where was the flavor? The effort? The tuna?!

My tolerance for mediocre restaurant food is reaching new lows.

I looked at Neil and said “for WAY less than $16 bucks, we could make this ourselves at home and actually do it right”.

So we did.  With a few twists. And it was fabulous.

Here’s a surprisingly easy weeknight do-it-yourself meal that’s full of flavor and tastes even better the next day wrapped up for a satisfying lunch.

Seared Tuna Wraps with Mango, Asian Slaw & Creamy Sriracha Sauce 

For the Asian Slaw:

Cabbage & carrot, shredded (or for super ease use a packaged pre-chopped slaw)

Grated ginger

2 green onions, chopped

Juice of half a lime

A few splashes of Mirin or rice wine vinegar

A few splashes of soy sauce

A couple of small splashes of sesame oil

Pepper

Toss all the ingredients together in a bowl and set aside.

Creamy Sriracha Sauce:

2 Tbsp plain yogurt

1 Tbsp low fat mayo

Chives, chopped

Zest of half a lime

Juice of half a lime or lemon

A few squirts of Sriracha – start with small amount and keep adding to adjust the level of heat to your taste

Sea salt to taste

Mix the first 5 ingredients together in a small bowl. Add in a few small squirts of sriracha at a time, starting with a small amount and adjusting the level of heat to your taste. Season with sea salt. Set aside.

For the Seared Tuna:

1 tuna steak – big enough for two people to share

Canola oil

Ground pepper & sea salt

Rub the tuna with a bit of canola oil and a little bit of salt on both sides. Add a good amount of pepper to coat both sides.

Heat pan on medium-high heat until it’s really hot and then add the tuna to sear it. Cook for approx 2-2.5 min a side and remove from heat promptly so it doesn’t overcook or cook through. Let it rest for a few minutes and then slice into it. It should be rare on the inside. Slice into thin strips.

Slice one whole mango into thin strips, squeeze the juice of one lime overtop and set aside.

Warm a few whole-wheat tortillas.

Garnishes:

Lime Wedges

Chopped cilantro (*which we didn’t have, but wished we did. It would have been the perfect finishing touch)

Place a good amount of Asian slaw onto each tortilla, top with seared tuna slices, mango & creamy sriracha sauce. Fold & eat! 

Curried Cauliflower & Chickpea Stew with Kale

30 Oct

It’s crazy how quickly the seasons change. Every year at the start of fall it feels like the weather turns way too quickly and all of the sudden flip flops get replaced with boots, tank tops with cozy sweaters. I always spend a good few weeks in denial, not wanting to say goodbye to the warmth of summer.

And then somehow you reach a point when it finally feels good to welcome fall and the crispness in the air is familiar and maybe even comforting. I made this stew on one such night a few weeks back. It was the day I succumbed & fully welcomed the changing leaves, the need to grab a scarf in the morning and that feeing that there’s no turning back – winter is on its way.

It was the kind of fall evening where it felt really good to be at home, listening to good music, cooking something hot and satisfying in my kitchen.

I was craving something healthy but rich and this stew did the trick. It’s the kind of meal that warms you from the inside out.

I used a Malaysian curry powder blend that I recently bought at Jean’s Vegetarian Kitchen on Danforth (I’m obsessed with their Malaysian Curry Eggplant) and it had the perfect balance of flavors for this recipe. But you can of course make your own blend pretty easily. I would recommend using a mix of dried spices instead of just straight up curry powder because you need that depth of flavor.

The Malaysian curry blend that I used has a really nice kick to it without being overly spicy. It’s a mix of: coriander, cumin, fennel, pepper, cayenne, turmeric, anise, ginger, garlic, cinnamon, mustard seed, cloves, fenugreek & cardamom.

If you don’t have all of those ingredients, I suggest mixing the more common ones: yellow curry powder, garlic or onion powder, ground fennel and cumin, cayenne, turmeric, cinnamon, powdered mustard.

This is the kind of dish that you can’t really screw up. Adjust to your tastes.

Curried Cauliflower & Chickpea Stew with Kale

1 Medium onion, chopped

1 shallot, chopped

2 carrots, peeled and chopped

1 head cauliflower, chopped into medium sized florets

1 bunch of black kale, chopped

1 can chickpeas, drained

1 can coconut milk (regular or light)

1 tin diced tomatoes (I only had whole ones, so I chopped them myself)

5 tsp curry blend (I used Malaysian curry powder and they were heaping tsp’s)

2 tbsp olive oil

Salt and pepper

Heat olive oil on high, add onions and shallot, sauté until brown (about 8 min).

Add the curry powder and sauté with onions for a minute. Add carrots, cauliflower and chickpeas and mix well. Season with a bit of salt.

Add in tomatoes with a bit of the juice and coconut milk. Add in the chopped kale.

Bring to a boil and then reduce heat to low. Cover and let simmer for 20 minutes to a half hour or more. Season with salt and pepper and serve bubbling hot.

Makes great lunch leftovers. I even ate mine cold for lunch the next day and it was delicious.

Cacio e Pepe: Simple, Quick and Delicious

26 Oct

cacio e pepe pepper cheese spaghetti

It’s a strange thing, this food blogging life. If you’re like us, you start out wanting to create some recipes and share food adventures through your blog. Eventually, you start to gain a bit of a following, and those followers start commenting about how they like your recipes, and enjoy reading your blog. And that excites you and pushes you to create even better recipes, and share more food adventures. But then, life happens—work, family, social commitments and, yes, laziness—and you can’t find the time to dream up great recipes to share with readers, and those readers start to move along (though a lot of you have stuck with us through the silence, and we really appreciate it).

Of course, a blog post doesn’t have to be long to be interesting, and a recipe doesn’t have to be complicated to be delicious. So with that in mind, here’s a quick look at a pasta dish that I’ve enjoyed for years, but for some reason had never made myself until recently: cacio e pepe.

This dish is incredibly simple, and almost insultingly so when you’re paying $12 for it in a restaurant (and yet I’m often guilty of doing just that when I see it on a menu). It’s pasta, pepper, pecorino cheese, and nothing else. Think of it as Italian KD—the nutritional value is minimal, but the flavours are comforting. There are really only two rules here—you must start with whole peppercorns, and you must use freshly grated cheese.

Here’s how you do it:

Boil a pot of water for the pasta. When the water is boiling, add a whole bunch of salt. You always want to add a good amount of salt to pasta water, but that’s especially true for cacio e pepe, since salty noodles add to the flavour of the finished dish. Throw in a package of spaghetti and let it cook to al dente. When the pasta is finished cooking, reserve about a half cup of pasta water and drain the noodles.

While the noodles are boiling, grind a tablespoon of peppercorns (or more if you like heat!). Even better, break them up with a mortar and pestle, which will crack the peppercorns into irregular sizes.

Next, grate a cup of pecorino romano cheese. (You want to finely grate the cheese for this, since a coarser grate can clump when you put together the final dish). You could use parmesan in a pinch, but the salty, earthy bite from the sheep’s milk-based pecorino really makes cacio e pepe what it is. Mix the pepper and cheese together in the same bowl.

Put the drained noodles back into the pasta pot, and toss with a handful of the pepper-cheese mixture. Add in a couple tablespoons of the pasta water (which will help the pepper and cheese stick, and the starch it retains from boiling the noodles will add creaminess to the sauce), and toss pasta with the rest of the pepper and cheese.

Serve as a side dish with meat, as a main with a salad… or on its own, nutritional value be damned.

cacio e pepe pasta pepper cheese spaghetti

Pan-Seared Watermelon with Salmon and Mint Chimichurri

15 Aug

 

seared watermelon salmon mint chimichurri

Last fall, I picked up a copy of Mark Bittman’s then-new book, The Food Matters Cookbook. I was feeling like my diet needed a bit of a shakeup, and I was drawn to Bittman’s philosophy, which essentially boils down to the idea that meat can and should be used as an ingredient, or a garnish, in a dish rather than as the main event. I love meat and can’t see myself going the vegetarian route, so the ideas and recipes in Bittman’s book struck a chord with me.

Of course, I also have a bad habit of buying cookbooks, flipping through them, and then promptly putting them away in my kitchen and forgetting about them for an extended period. This one suffered such a fate until I pulled it out this weekend for a look and something caught my eye that I’d never tasted, and frankly didn’t even realize was possible—seared watermelon.

In Mark Bittman’s recipe, the seared watermelon was used as a base for a Japanese-inspired fish dish. He wrote that the watermelon took on a substantial steak-like texture when it was seared, as the water was pulled out of it. I knew I needed to try this, but in my mind, I saw the watermelon paired with salmon (rather than the simple white fish Bittman recommends) and topped with a simple, fresh mint and basil chimichurri, since the flavours of watermelon and mint go so great together.

Jenny and I both agreed that this really turned out amazing. In addition to becoming less watery and firmer when seared, the sugars in the watermelon also caramelize in the pan, which adds a bit of a burnt sugar element. And while this looks like an elaborate, composed dish on the plate, it came together in no time at all—perfect for a weeknight.

pan seared watermelon

Pan-seared watermelon with salmon and mint-basil chimichurri

For the chimichurri:

1 C basil leaves, packed
¼ C mint leaves, packed
¼ C olive oil (good oil, like a Spanish – oil will be part of flavour so it should be good quality)
Zest and juice of half a lemon
A couple grinds of salt and pepper

Place all ingredients and half the olive oil in a food processor. Pulse for a minute or two until leaves get chopped and ingredients are well blended. Add more olive oil as needed, depending on desired consistency (less oil for a thicker chimichurri, more for a thinner one).

For the pan-seared watermelon:

Slice watermelon an inch or two thick and remove the rind. Season slices with a pinch of salt. Heat a metal pan coated with a small amount of olive oil over medium-high heat for several minutes. When oil begins to sizzle, place watermelon slices in pan. Leave to sear for two minutes or so, until it begins to brown, then flip and cook another two minutes on the other side. Remove from heat and set aside on a plate.

For the salmon:

Season individually portioned salmon fillets with salt and pepper. Sear on both sides in a hot pan until cooked, a few minutes per side.

To plate, place a slice of seared watermelon on a plate, top with a salmon fillet, then drizzle chimichurri overtop the salmon.

seared watermelon salmon chimichurri

The Cuban Sandwich: Re-invented for Food Day

31 Jul

To celebrate Food Day Canada, Neil and I came up with an idea inspired by a fond food memory and fresh local produce, resulting in a new take on a classic sandwich; The Cubano.

There seems to be some debate about where the sandwich was born. Some say it was created in Cuban cafes, some say it evolved to what it is today in nearby Florida as Cubans eventually settled there. Either way, today you can find different variations depending on where you go, but the basic components seem to always be the same: bread, Swiss cheese, roasted pork, ham, mustard and pickles. Usually grilled or pressed, always delicious. The pickles really bring it home for me, but all of those basic ingredients oozing and hot between good bread really can’t be beat.

The first time Neil and I experienced a Cuban sandwich was in the back seat of a New York City cab. We found ourselves in a huge rush to get across the city, but we were also starved so we ran into the first takeout place we could find; The Original Sandwich Shoppe of NY on Greenwich Ave. in the West Village. We read the menu quickly and chose the Cuban mostly by default, agreeing that it sounded interesting but not really paying much attention.  There was little expectation or anticipation. We grabbed it to go and hopped in the cab not realizing we were missing a key ingredient – napkins, much needed when tackling a really good Cuban sandwich. How naïve we were before taking that first messy bite. We were completely unprepared for the sheer sandwich nirvana that followed. But we never forgot it. I usually seek one out now when I’m in New York and you can find them at just about every corner deli. Sometimes the pork is roasted and shredded, sometimes it’s in bigger chunks, but those main ingredients are always there and they pair so perfectly together.

We were bouncing around some ideas for dinner on Food Day, when I found myself thinking about those ingredients and how well the flavors work together. But we wanted to do something a little bit different and decided we’d take our cues from what we found on our travels that afternoon.

At Rowe Farms we found beautiful Ontario heirloom beets and green beans and thought it would be fun to play with the pickled part of the sandwich. We also picked up some of their boneless pork loin chops, which we thought would also be a nice update considering it’s BBQ season and chops grill so nicely and quickly on the BBQ. Across the street at the Leslieville Cheese Market we got two different kinds of mild and creamy Canadian cheese and a loaf of good fresh sourdough bread.

Back at home our vision evolved and we decided we’d create a bit of visual feast for ourselves, laying out all of our ingredients to make our own open-faced Cubans with a few twists. We ditched the ham altogether and figured heating the bread on the BBQ would give enough of that grilled flavor in place of dragging out the Panini press.

I quick-pickled the beets and beans in separate batches with slight variations in the pickling liquid. Neil made his own version of a mojo marinade for the pork after reading that the slow-roasted pork usually found on classic Cubanos is marinated in this unique and delicious blend of citrus and spices.

After leaving the pork to marinate and the veggies to pickle for a few hours, all we had to do was light the BBQ, grill the chops and bread and help ourselves to what turned out to be a really fun and delicious take on a sandwich that we both love. Of course we didn’t forget the real pickles (we used mini kosher dills) and grainy mustard. 

We couldn’t completely stray from tradition, though our modern additions made for one enjoyable backyard meal that we’ll definitely be making again. A slight step up from the back of a cab, but just as fun and memorable.


* Quick-Pickle Disclaimer: We barely followed a recipe for the pickled vegetables. We just threw a bunch of stuff into a pot and hoped for the best. Though we did decide to use more sugar for the beets to offset their slight bitterness and changed up a few of the ingredients for the beans. I tried to give measurements, but give or take for each… use your judgment! You can’t really screw them up by adding a little more or less of these ingredients.

Quick-Pickled Raw Beets

Small bunch of fresh beets

1 cup white vinegar

¼ cup sugar

Handful of black peppercorns

Small handful mustard seed

A few bay leaves

Clean and peel the beets. Slice them thinly into rounds and put them in a bowl or container.

Bring the rest of the ingredients to a boil in a small saucepan. Once boiled, remove from heat and pour over the raw beets. Cover and leave them to sit in the pickling liquid for a few hours or in the fridge overnight. We let ours pickle for about two hours and they were delicious.

Quick-Pickled Green Beans

A bunch of fresh green beans, washed & trimmed

1 cup vinegar

A little less than ¼ cup sugar

6-7 grinds of sea salt

Handful of mustard seed

A pinch of ground ginger

A few bay leaves

Lightly steam the green beans so they’re heated and slightly cooked but still crunchy.

Bring all of the pickling ingredients to a boil in a small saucepan. Once boiled, remove from heat and pour over the green beans. Cover and let them sit in the pickling liquid for about 2 hours or overnight in the fridge.

Mojo-Marinated Grilled Pork Chops

3-4 small boneless pork loin chops

Juice of 1 orange

Juice of 2 fresh limes

3 garlic cloves, minced

1 tsp paprika

2 tsp cumin

1/3 cup olive oil

A few pinches of sea salt and black pepper

Mix all of the ingredients for the marinade and pour on top of the pork chops. Cover, refrigerate and let marinate for at least 2 hours or overnight. We left ours for about 2 hours and they were very flavorful but next time we’d like to try leaving them overnight to let the flavors penetrate the pork even more.

Heat your BBQ to approximately 450 degrees. Cook the pork chops for about 4 minutes per side.

To Assemble Open-Faced Cuban Sandwiches:

While the BBQ is hot, grill slices of fresh bread brushed with a little bit of olive oil. Slice the pork into strips and lay them out on a platter. Slice pickles and arrange pickles, beets and beans on a tray or wooden board with any kind of semi-soft, creamy cheese and Dijon or grainy mustard.

Take a slice of grilled bread, spread with mustard and top with cheese, pork and your variety of pickles. Keep a stash of napkins closeby… 

Supporting Summer’s Bounty, and Those Who Grow It

10 Jul

pork chops summer dinner

It’s certainly taken a while to settle in, but we can finally say for certain that summer is here to stay for a while. Sunny skies and hot temperatures are an almost daily fact of life, and summer hours have kicked in for both Jenny and I at work, which means we (sometimes) get to leave the office early on Fridays to enjoy the season.

But the main reason I know summer is in full bloom is that farmer’s markets are teeming with amazing, fresh produce. I’ve written several times about the fact that one of the things I love most about living in southern Ontario is that we’re only an hour or so away from countless farms that produce a mind-blowing selection of fruits, vegetables, fresh meats and dairy. And in Toronto, we take advantage of this by hosting farmer’s markets in all corners of the city. One of our favorites is the Evergreen Brickworks Farmer’s Market, an oasis of farm freshness set in a lush landscape right in the middle of the city. Walking around farmer’s markets like this on a Saturday morning, looking at and smelling produce often picked just that morning and interacting with the people that actually grew what you’re considering buying really makes you appreciate the fertile land we’re surrounded by and the people who work it.

(As a bit of an aside, some of that land is currently being threatened in southern Ontario. A U.S. company called Highland Companies is currently planning to develop a quarry on farmland in Melancthon, Ont., home of some of the best soil in Canada. If the project is allowed to proceed, a key source of both food and water for residents of Ontario and Canada will be lost. Read more about the project here, and then sign this petition to voice your opposition to the Melancthon quarry.)

On a recent visit, I picked up some garlic scapes, oyster mushrooms and a spicy salad mix, which factored into a simple, flavourful summer meal of grilled pork chops (picked up from The Friendly Butcher on the Danforth) and a salad of sautéed mushrooms and garlic scapes. Here’s how I did it:

Grilled Pork Chops with Balsamic Cherries and Oyster Mushroom Salad

For the pork chops:

I rubbed the pork chops with some rub that Chef Roger Mooking was handing out to patrons at the recent Toronto Taste event; I’m not sure what was in the rub, but it smelled amazing and tasted great on the chops.

pork chops rub

I like grilling pork chops similar to steak, so that they’re cooked just past medium and retain just a little pink in the middle and are juicy. To do this, cook the chops on a BBQ over high heat. Place the chops on the grill and cook with the lid closed for about two minutes. Then turn the chops 45 degrees and cook for another two or three minutes. Then, flip the chops over and cook with the lid closed again for two minutes. Rotate 45 degrees again and cook for another couple of minutes. Remove the chops from the grill and let rest for five to 10 minutes.

For the salad:

Chop oyster mushrooms and garlic scapes into smallish pieces. Throw into a pan with some olive oil, salt and pepper over medium-high heat, sautéing for several minutes until everything starts to soften. Add a couple splashes of balsamic vinegar about half way through cooking. Plate mushrooms and scapes on salad mix and top with a generous splash of good olive oil.

oyster mushrooms and garlic scapes

For the balsamic cherries:

Jenny had picked up a jar of Composta di Amarene all’Aceto Balsamico (sour cherry compote with balsamic) from Eataly in New York City recently. It’s a jarred condiment imported from Italy that’s basically whole cherries preserved in balsamic vinegar. I threw a couple of spoonfuls in a heated pan with some more balsamic vinegar and chilli flakes, and let it simmer away for several minutes until it began to get jam-like and the vinegar reduced. Then I simply spooned this over the pork chops.

If you don’t have preserved cherries from Italy, I’m sure you could easily create a similar condiment with some pitted cherries cooked down in a pan with some balsamic and chilli flakes.

Enjoy summer!

pork chops plate

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