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Celebrating Canadian Food: Chef Michael Howell, Tempest, Nova Scotia

13 Jul

Chef Michael Howell Tempest

Last month, we had the opportunity to attend the first Great Canadian Cheese Festival in Picton, Ont. In addition to being able to learn about and taste cheeses from all over Canada in a setting that is quickly becoming one of Ontario’s greatest culinary tourism escapes, I loved that the festival pulled together chefs from all over Canada and gave festival-goers the chance to chat with them.

Jenny and I spoke only briefly with Michael Howell, chef of Tempest Restaurant in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. But in those few minutes, we really got a sense of the passion chef Howell, a Nova Scotia native who’s lived and cooked all over the world, has for both his trade and his home province.

July 30 is Food Day Canada, an initiative started nine years ago by Canadian food writer Anita Stewart to celebrate Canada’s food bounty and culinary skill. Chefs, restaurants and ordinary citizens all over the country will mark the occasion in their own special ways. In advance of Food Day Canada, we’re going to be chatting with some of the chefs whose restaurants will celebrate Canadian food on July 30 to gauge their thoughts on our country’s food scene and traditions.

First up, we talk to chef Michael Howell. 

What do you love about cooking in Nova Scotia?

I am blessed to be living in the heartland of Nova Scotia’s agricultural bounty. My restaurant is 500 metres from the Wolfville Farmers Market, less than five kilometres from five wineries, and most of my fresh product comes from within 20 kilometres of my business. ALL of my suppliers are primary producers – I do not have to use ANY distributors.

Nova Scotia is a nascent destination for culinary tourism and yet there is a breadth and depth to the chefs cooking here that is equal to many far more cosmopolitan destinations. We choose to live here because of the quality of life as well as the quality of porduct available at our beck and call.

How have local factors such as geography, economics and demographics influenced your cooking style?

Seasonality is a mantra that many chefs espouse nowadays, and in some cases, rather exemporaneously. I truly try to cook seasonally with respect for local ingredients. I can get local tomatoes (from a greenhouse) 10 months of the year. I have another greens supplier that keeps me in exotica (radish sprouts, micro mix,  etc) 12 months of the year.

Seafood is ALWAYS available so I am only restricted by green veg and fruit availability. For several seasons, I have cooked an all Italian menu for the winter that reflects seasonality but also brings in the locals in the dead of winter – think squash and quark ravioli with sage butter or locally farmed (land-based farming) branzino with winter veg ragu. My cuisine is simpler as I get older – less complicated, more about purity of ingredients and flavours –  but I try to stay au courant so that I am not thought of as anachronistic by critics and so my young cooks  don’t get bored by simplicity…

How has the local food scene in your region evolved over the years?

I, and several other chefs (Martin Ruiz, Craig Flinn, Dennis Johnston, Ray Bear) are driving a culinary rennaissance here in Nova Scotia. We bring experience from all over the world to our little corner of heaven. We continue to travel and experience great cuisines and make an effort to stay relevant when we come home to our businesses. Our cuisine is distinctly steeped in seafood – that is inescapeable, of course. But we aren’t just about Digby scallops and lobster either. Many of us are beginning to grapple with the issues of sustainable seafood when it comes to procurement, so hopefully we are driving a new thinking when seafood suppliers think about the methods of harvesting and the species they are delivering to us, so that they respect an increasingly passionate scrunity of the products we are serving at our restaurants by customers concerned with sustainability and the health of our oceans.

What are your thoughts on the idea that there is a “Canadian cuisine”?

Canadian cuisine is indefinable. We are motivated by our ethnicity, by our regionality, by our urbanism. Anthony Walsh’s interpretation of Canadian cuisine is one pole (bringing the best to Toronto from all corners of Canada), Martin Picard’s is another (celebrating distinctly Quebecois cuisine steeped in French tradition). Our cuisine is interpreting our local ingredients wherever we are. Increasingly, like Italian cuisine, we  are regionalized. Tuscan cuisine is completely unlike Pugliese cuisine, yet they share a common thread of pasta,  and primi, secondi and dolce as a method of dining. I cook scallops, lobster, halibut, haddock and mussels as regional celebrations yet I still cook Berkshire pork, great rib eyes to make the steak lover salivate, and cool vegetarian dishes to satisfty the increasing number of non-protein eaters that are a part of the culinary landscape. There will never be a definable Canadian cuisine, unless the definition is melting pot influenced by regional ingredients.

How is Tempest celebrating Food Day Canada?

We are cooking a hugely celebratory multi-course dinner that reveres local ingredients:

Dulse crusted Roasted Elmridge Farm Fingerlings with Farmers Sour Cream and Acadian Sturgeon Caviar
Domaine de Grand Pre Champlain Brut

Arctic Char Tartare:
Sustainable blue Arctic char, Back Door chives,  opal basil oil, horseradish espuma, crispy Lakewood Market garden zucchini blossoms
L’Acadie Vineyards Sparkling Rose

Trio of Taproot Farms Sun Gold Tomatoes:
Panzanella with Fox Hill Cheese House mozzarella, Boulangerie la Vendeenne sourdough
Tomato water and ShanDaph oyster shooter
Stinging nettle and Fox Hill quark ravioli with tomato confit
Annapolis Highlands Vineyards Geisenheim Riesling 2010

Applewood smoked leg of Gaspereau Valley lamb with Chef’s Garden pirri pirri sauce, minted tabbouleh, our own ajvar, lemon verbena foam
Luckett Vineyards 2009 Triumphe

Noggins Corner peach tart, Ran-Cher Acres goat cheese and Cosman & Whidden Honey gelato
Domaine de Grand Pre Pomme D’Or

Summer School In Session at the Drake Hotel

24 Jun

Drake Hotel Hot Dog

Jenny and I make no secret of the fact we love Toronto’s Drake Hotel. It’s a great place to see a band, or meet friends for a couple of drinks, or go for a great brunch (I could eat their southern-fried chicken and waffles every day if not for the fact it would probably eventually stop my heart), or for dinner. Aside from the talented staff behind the bar and in the kitchen, the Drake has a vibe that just makes it a special place.

We’ve always loved the look and feel of their dining room. So it came as a surprise a couple months ago when they announced they were going to rip out the current dining room and start from scratch. The trigger for this drastic change was the Drake Hotel’s Dining Road Show, a series of here-and-then-gone concepts that are scheduled to be introduced throughout the rest of 2011.

I was lucky to get an invite to a preview dinner this week, where the Drake unveiled its first stop on the Dining Road Show: Summer School Dining Hall. The concept, which in true summer school fashion will run from now until September, saw the dining room completely transformed. Tables are made from old bowling alley lanes, walls are lined with old bookshelves, school photos, trophies and other academia memorabilia. I was too busy focusing on the food (and having camera issues), so I didn’t get any good interior shots, but check out this review for a look at the new digs.

Both the food and drink menus have been revamped as well. Chef Anthony Rose designed the new food offerings to remind diners of some of the food they may have eaten in the school cafeteria, but he’s presenting the dishes in the “grown-up comfort food” style he’s mastered over the years. We were served a rather shocking amount of food (I’ve actually left photos of a few dishes we tasted out of this post), and there were some definite must-order items: the rather-phallic-yet-delicious veal footlong dog pictured above; a lobster roll full of big chunks of lobster meat and substantial enough to share between two or more people; meaty dungeness crab cakes that are big on flavour and low on filler; and an insanely good 32-oz cowboy steak from Cumbrae’s that’s meant for two but easily able to feed at least double that.

Drake Hotel Lobster Roll
Chef Anthony Rose’s 1 lb. lobster roll. Awesome, if maybe a bit heavy on the mayo.
Drake Hotel Crab Cakes
Drake’s crab cakes, full of dungeness crab meat. Yum.
Drake Hotel Cowboy Steak
One piece of the massive 32-oz Cumbrae’s cowboy steak being served at the Drake Hotel’s Summer School Dining Hall. Check out that line of delicious, delicious fat. To paraphrase one famous cowboy, I wish I knew how to quit you, awesome steak.

The Drake’s talented mixology team has introduced a number of new drinks to fit the Summer School theme, from spiked juice boxes to something called The Nurse’s Office, a combination of Famous Grouse, Laphroaig and ginger honey syrup that blew my socks off and made me reconsider my “good scotch doesn’t belong in a cocktail” pretense.

Nurse's Office
This is one Nurse’s Office I’d like to visit on a regular basis.

Once September hits and the kids go back to real school, the Drake’s grown-up summer school session ends and the Dining Road Show’s next stop – Chinatown, 1940s L.A. style – moves in. Until then, check out the great grub being served in their Summer School Dining Hall. 

Tomato Alphabet soup
Tomato alphabet soup. No amount of letters could fix my hatred of tomato soup as a kid, but this one (served tableside out of an old-school thermos) may have changed my mind.

 

Drake Hotel Flaky
Nothing beats a real Vachon Passion Flaky, but chef Rose’s take is a good way to end a meal in the Summer School Dining Hall.

Latin Flavours at Bloom Restaurant

7 Jun

Bloom Restaurant Toronto

My family lived near Bloor West Village in Toronto during my late high school years. While I was too young at the time to fully appreciate the range of great restaurants and shops in the ‘hood, I do remember really liking the area and thinking that I could see myself living there as an adult.

Fast-forward a decade (okay, a bit more than that…), and I find myself a homeowner in the opposite end of the city. Between time constraints, traffic and the fact there are so many amazing food and shopping options between my house and Etobicoke, I rarely find myself in Bloor West Village anymore. So I jumped at the chance to attend a media preview dinner recently at Bloom Restaurant, to check out their new chef, spring menu, and of course my old stomping grounds.

Chef Pedro Quintanilla took over the kitchen at Bloom in April, after cooking at sister restaurant Focaccia downtown since 2004. Quintanilla grew up in Cuba, and began his cooking career in some of Havana’s best restaurants. He also spent time as chef at the French embassy in Cuba. Moving to Toronto in the early 1990s, he had the opportunity to be part of Toronto’s growing Latin cuisine boom, working in several notable kitchens.

While the dishes at Bloom under Quintanilla feature some definite Latin influences, he’s clearly drawing on his experience with Italian, French and other cuisines as well—spring dishes include charcuterie, beef carpaccio and duck confit.

Bloom Restaurant Spring Terrine

One of the benefits of Jenny and I sometimes attending these tasting events together is that when there are choices on the preview menu, we get to taste them all by alternating dishes between us. This was the case at Bloom. While I chose the spring terrine of chicken liver and foie gras paired with fresh asparagus and battered onion rings to start (pictured above), Jenny opted for the ceviche (below).

Bloom Restaurant Ceviche

We’re both huge ceviche fans, and Bloom’s didn’t disappoint, with a good balance of citrus, heat and herbs. And Bloom’s seafood is sustainable, a growing trend among Toronto restaurants that’s encouraging to see. If anything, I would have liked to see a bit more fish on the plate. But both of us really enjoyed the terrine, definitely French in its flavouring rather than Latin, with a great texture, smooth but not so much that it lost the rustic charm of the dish.

Bloom Restaurant Ahi Tuna

For mains, we shared a sesame-crusted ahi tuna fillet served with potatoes, tofu-wasabi dressing, roasted vegetables and a few wasabi peas scattered on the plate (above), as well as pan-seared flank steak with garlic-smashed potatoes, chimichurri sauce and ginger-glazed carrots (below). The tuna was cooked perfectly, and I thought the dressing drizzled over top had great flavour and went well with the crunch of the sesame seed crust. Of the two mains, though, the flank steak was the standout. While the steak itself was cooked just a touch too long (a common issue with flank steak), it was still fairly tender. And the chimichurri it was served with was outstanding.  Chimichurri is essentially Latin pesto, and as simple as that is, too often restaurants serve chimichurri that lacks an intense herb flavour or that has the wrong balance of oil to greens. Quintanilla’s chimichurri was amazingly fresh, paired well with the steak, and got an extra kick from the garlic potatoes.

Bloom Toronto Flank Steak Chimichurri

Dessert was Cuban flan, an egg custard topped with dulce de leche and thyme, as well as churros served with warm chocolate sauce and ice cream. Talking to other media reps dining at Bloom, it seemed like everyone was split on dessert. Some preferred the churros, which were light and crisp and went well with the cinnamon and chipotle-spiced sauce. Jenny and I were both in the other camp, preferring the flan. While similar to a crème caramel, Bloom’s version was denser, with more of an eggy texture that Quintanilla said was the way it was done in Cuba (almost like soft scrambled eggs packed into a mold). I can see that not being to everyone’s taste, but it made the dish memorable for us.

Bloom Toronto Cuban Flan
Bloom Restaurant’s Cuban Flan.

Overall, Bloom strikes me as more of a neighbourhood restaurant than a destination dining spot (at least until chef Quintanilla injects more of the menu with Cuban influence), but it’s great to know of adining spot I can count on for a good meal next time I find myself in Bloor West Village.

Bloom Toronto Churros
Churros at Bloom Restaurant.

On the Menu

14 May

 

Jenny and I have been lucky enough to attend a bunch of great food-related events in and around Toronto, most of which we’ve found out about from contacts we’ve made through Communal Table. Since this means people we know have started to look to us for what’s going on in Toronto’s food scene – and we don’t always remember unless we have it written down – we figured it’d be a good idea to start up a periodic listing of cools events we’ve found out about.

While we’re not planning to run this listing on any sort of defined weekly schedule – at least not initially – we will offer up a look at what’s “on the menu” once in a while, as we get wind of interesting happenings. Here’s what we’ve heard about recently:

86’D at the Drake Hotel:  Cheese Rave
Monday, May 16

Food-related fun is the focus of Monday nights at the Drake Hotel’s 86’D events, hosted by local food personality Ivy Knight. Each Monday evening features music, food cook-offs pitting local chefs or amateur cooks against each other over a themed dish (think battle pate or kimchi), and great drinks from the Drake’s bar staff. This coming Monday’s 86’d is all about cheese, as attendees sample different varieties in recognition of the upcoming Great Canadian Cheese Festival.

iYellow Wines of Niagara on the Lake
Wednesday, May 18

We’ve told you about the iYellow Wine Club in the past, and they’re back with another event aimed at helping people learn about and sample a selection of wines. This one will feature owners and winemakers from 26 different Niagara Region wineries, each sampling two of their newest VQA release wines. In addition to tastings, the event will include food from Oliver & Bonacini and three educational wine seminars. And here’s something cool – for every ticket you buy to the Wines of Niagara on the Lake event, you’ll get a free ticket to one of iYellow’s wine events taking place later this summer.

Recipe for Change
May 26

FoodShare is a Toronto organization with a mandate of ensuring good, healthy food for all. They offer school programs to improve the food knowledge of young people, a Good Food Box program to deliver quality produce to people all over Toronto, and focus on working to change food policy, among other activities. The Recipe for Change event is a night of great food, wine and beer from some of Toronto’s best chefs, as well as local wineries and craft breweries. Proceeds from the event help fund FoodShare’s programs for students. Jenny and I are excited by the list of chefs and dishes scheduled, and we’re planning on being there.

Donate a Can Project
Until May 28

Until May 28, the organizers of this initiative will donate a can of food to Second Harvest for every LIKE they get on their Facebook fan page, as well as a can of food for every follower they get to their Twitter account @donateacan. Sounds like a great initiative, and an easy way for everyone in Toronto and elsewhere to help feed people in need through Second Harvest.

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.

Toronto Bakes for Japan This Weekend

7 Apr

Toronto Bakes for Japan

More than 12,000 deaths. Over 15,000 people missing. 160,000 displaced. Total damage costs estimated at as much as $300 billion. The impact of the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami that devastated Japan nearly a month ago is staggering. Fortunately, social media and some generous organizations and individuals have come together over the past several weeks to hold fundraising events to help in Japan’s rebuilding efforts.

Toronto Bakes for Japan is one of those fundraising events. This Saturday and Sunday, participating venues across the city will hold bake sales, with proceeds going to the Japanese Red Cross Society, which is leading relief efforts on the ground in Japan. Baked goods are being created by a team of volunteer bakers – both professional and amateur – and a wide selection of cookies, cakes, pastries and other sweet treats will be available at each listed venue.

Those who aren’t into baked goods will still find plenty to enjoy at Toronto Bakes for Japan. Great prizes donated by bakeries, cooking schools  and other organizations will be available through auctions and raffles. A selection of art works created specifically for the event will be auctioned off Sunday at Liberty Noodle, and the band Graydon James and the Young Novelists will also play at that venue on Sunday.

Heena from the blog Tiffin Tales and Niya from Destiny, Domesticity & Dirty Secrets are the brains behind Toronto Bakes for Japan. They were inspired by the Great Kiwi Bake-Off, which raised more than $16,000 for relief efforts following the recent earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, and a U.S.-based bake sale fundraising effort that raised $23,000 for relief in Haiti and is back to help the people of Japan.

I’m a sucker for baked goods, which is why I usually make an effort to stay away from them as much as possible. But this weekend, all bets are off. I’ll be at the Evergreen Brick Works on Saturday morning on the hunt for cookies, butter tarts and scones… It’s for a great cause, after all.

Celebrating Greek and Italian Cuisine at Malena

5 Apr
Malena Toronto

Malena Restaurant in Toronto (Photo credit: Malena)

Toronto has many Italian restaurants, and many that showcase Greek cuisine. But there’s only one restaurant in the city that brings the flavours of Greece together with the cooking of the nearby southern Italian region. Malena, which recently celebrated its first anniversary, focuses on the food of the Ionian sea that both these places border. That means a menu heavy on fish and seafood, as well as classic Mediterranean ingredients such as good olive oil, tomatoes, herbs and citrus.

I was invited to a media dinner celebrating both the restaurant’s first birthday and the introduction of its spring 2011 menu. The food writers and bloggers around the table were given the opportunity to taste a selection of appetizers and desserts prepared by Malena chef Doug Neigel and his team, and we each chose a main from a selection that included gnudi with braised rabbit, a Berkshire pork chop on celery root mash, whole grilled sea bream served with gigantes beans in tomato with tzatziki, and my selection, seared branzino filets with fennel, rapini and anchovy lemon vinaigrette.

Seared Branzino
Seared branzino with fennel and rapini

This was my first exposure to chef Neigel’s food, and I was impressed with his ability to combine flavours to create dishes that were neither Greek nor Italian, but were both. The branzino, also known as European sea bass, was a definite highlight of the meal. But the standouts for me were two of the appetizers we sampled.

The grilled octopus served with pancetta and root vegetable fregola (a southern Italian pasta similar to Israeli couscous) and orange agro dolce was amazing. Grilled octopus has a simple, fresh taste that is distinctly Mediterranean, and the fregola and orange agro dolce worked well with the charred notes from the octopus. While grilled octopus is fairly common in Greece and parts of Italy, it’s not something I’ve seen on many Toronto menus.

Grilled Octopus
Grilled octopus on pancetta and root vegetable fregola with orange agro dolce

We were also served an uni crostini that blew my mind. I’d actually had my first exposure to uni (sea urchin) just a couple weeks earlier, in the form of sushi. Sea urchin is a crustacean that looks similar to an oyster, but with a softer texture and a taste that is mildly sweet and briny. Chef Neigel paired the uni with mashed avocado, a great complement that mimicked the sea urchin’s texture while being mild enough to let its flavours shine through.

Sea Urchin Crostini
Sea urchin and avocado crostini

We were also treated to a selection of desserts, of which the simplest – cannoli – stood out for me. It’s easy to find cannoli in Toronto, but not so easy to find great cannoli. Pastry chef Leigha Dimitroff’s cannoli falls into the ‘great’ category, with a shell that is perfectly crisp and not too sweet, and a rich filling that changes with the seasons.

Through the meal, the chef repeatedly highlighted his emphasis on using the best ingredients regardless of geographic boundaries, but at the same time ensuring as many of his products as possible come from sustainable sources. While some of the fish and seafood comes from Europe, Neigel emphasized that both the branzino and sea bream are raised sustainably in Greece. The uni in his crostini come from a sustainable source in B.C., and the rabbit and pork are farm-raised in Ontario.

Neigel told me that while his focus is on serving great food, he understands and appreciates the increasing demand from diners for ethically-sourced ingredients.

“My first job is to provide the quality and variety in ingredients that our guests are looking for. I try whenever possible to have those ingredients be sustainable and local. I think it’s truly up to the diners to push us towards more local and sustainable products.  I will give them the options and the more they ask for it the more I can provide it,” he says.

Neigel says that growing up in Ontario’s Muskoka region helped him gain an appreciation for the link between nature and food, and he has a particular love for Italian and Greek cuisines because of their focus on letting the ingredients shine through.

“I grew up on the water, so we fished a lot. The strongest influence that gave me was simple preparation and the freshest ingredients. I fell in love with Italian food because of the simplicity of the cuisine. It really makes you focus on the quality of the product you use. At Malena, I cook much lighter, using little butter and cream. I also have great inspiration from the tradition and ingredients in Greek cuisine.”

Viva Italia! Cucina Gala Showcases Toronto’s Italian Delights

3 Mar

Buca at George Brown

Being half Italian, I’ve had the pleasure of eating great Italian food my entire life. I grew up eating the simple dishes my dad made that he remembered from his childhood, the complex pastas that my mom (not Italian, but an amateur gourmet chef) loved to experiment with, and the lasagnas, slow-cooked sauces and great grilled meats made by my Italian aunts and uncles that I’ve tried to duplicate the taste of ever since I started messing around in the kitchen.

While I love eating the familiar flavours I grew up on, I also get excited about being able to sample new takes on Italian dishes prepared by great professional chefs. Jenny and I were recently at an event that let us do just that. The George Brown College Chef School’s Viva Italia! Cucina event is a week-long celebration of the food and culture of Italy. For the past three years, the event has allowed diners the opportunity to eat lunches and dinners prepared by the college’s talented students, and to enjoy movies and other Italian cultural offerings. Proceeds from the events go toward scholarships for George Brown culinary students.

The Viva Italia event we attended was the gala tasting reception, which brought together some of Toronto’s best chefs, along with food and wine producers, for an evening of eating, drinking and enjoying Italian culture.

Buca sign

Jenny and I agreed that one of the best samples we had at the gala was Buca chef Rob Gentile’s dish of rare beef heart served with grilled radicchio Treviso, taleggio cheese from Montforte Dairy, Cookstown Greens cippolini onion, preserved figs and concorde grape mosto cotto. The flavours worked beautifully together in this dish, with sweet, sour and bitter elements paired well with the rich, earthy taste of the beef heart.

Of course, Toronto is a city full of great Italian restaurants, so many of the dishes we tasted were amazing. Here are some of the highlights:

Pingue prosciuttoMario Pingue of Niagara’s Pingue Prosciutto was on hand to sample his product, slicing the prosciutto fresh for eaters over the course of the evening. Pingue’s is the prosciutto of choice for many Ontario restaurants, and it’s not hard to see why, as the taste and texture is very close to the authentic stuff that gets imported from Parma.

Local Kitchen TorontoChef Fabio Bondi from Local Kitchen was serving crostini topped with thinly sliced potato, braised octopus and a hint of citrus. A delicious bite of food.

risottoStaff from Toronto fine food grocer Pusateri’s was preparing chicken and spinach risotto. While I rarely order risotto in a restaurant and only occasionally make it at home, I have a soft spot for it as an Italian comfort food, so I was happy to see it being prepared fresh for diners at the Viva Italia! Cucina gala.

Zucca Trattoria TorontoChef Andrew Milne-Allan of popular Toronto restaurant Zucca Trattoria prepared a canape of farro, cooked risotto-style and mixed with shrimp, lemon, celery and onion, and served on an endive leaf. The endive is a great vessel for serving something like this, as it’s strong enough to hold the food well while also adding a nice hit of bitter to the dish. And it was nice to see farro being used, as it’s a grain I’m still not very familiar with but have really enjoyed the few times I’ve eaten it.

Peroni cheese and beer

While the food was great, Jenny and I really enjoyed the chance to interact with many of the chefs and food representatives on hand, to discover new ideas and stories. Representatives from Peroni, one of Italy’s most popular beers, were there to educate attendees about how well their beer pairs with one of Italy’s most popular cheeses, asiago. While the idea of pairing cheese and beer isn’t necessarily new – a dark Belgian ale is a great match for cheese fondue, for instance – consumption of beer is still low in Italy and it’s not a common pairing for cheese in the cuisine.

As we tasted, the Peroni reps explained that beer and cheese naturally complement one another, as the cows that produce the milk used in the cheese consume some of the same grains used in the production of the beer. The Peroni was definitely a great match with the sharp asiago, as both have an inherent creamy mouth feel, and the sweet hoppy taste of the beer helps to mellow out the cheese’s strong bite.

Torito pasta

We also really loved chatting with chef Luis Valenzuela of Torito Tapas Bar. While both the restaurant and the chef are Spanish, it was Valenzuela who made one of the best Italian dishes of the night. He blanched homemade tagliatelle noodles in water for one minute, then placed the noodles in a mold along with chunks of braised wild boar guanciale and amatriciana (spicy tomato) sauce. The molds were placed in the oven to cook, so that the end result was a sort of cross between a plate of pasta and a layered lasagna. Chef Valenzuela topped each dish with a disc of deliciously salty, thinly sliced Pingue’s pancetta. He was also serving a dish of raw spaghetti squash and thinly julienned zucchini tossed with a peanut and almond sauce that tasted very Spanish inspired.

The fact that Chef Valenzuela’s guanciale amatriciana pasta was clearly one of the night’s most popular dishes – he told us he made more than 100 servings and he was down to about 20 left just an hour into the evening, and there were constantly lineups at his booth – is proof positive that you don’t have to be Italian to cook amazing Italian food; you just need passion for both the food and the people eating it.

Torito Toronto

Valenzuela spoke to us with passion about the time he spent studying at George Brown College’s culinary school. He said he started in the program shortly after moving from his native Mexico, and George Brown allowed him to explore a number of different cuisines, cook with and learn from chefs who’d worked all over the world (including one who had cooked for the queen), and make important industry connections. He said he still feels strong ties to the school, which is why he comes back to volunteer his time and skills to events such as the Viva Italia week.

This was our first exposure to the Viva Italia! Cucina event at George Brown College’s Chef School, but judging by the size of the crowd and the great chefs who attended, it’s clearly developed a strong following. We’ll definitely go back to the gala next year – and hopefully enjoy one of the lunches or dinners during the week, as well.

The crowd enjoying dessert at the Viva Italia! Cucina gala at George Brown College.

A glimpse of Canada’s young talent at the Almost Famous Chef Competition

17 Feb

Almost Famous Chef Competition Dishes

For the past nine years, the S.Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef Competition has given talented culinary school students from across North America the chance to show off their talents. The annual competition is composed of 10 regional contests and a finals competition.

Jenny and I were lucky enough to be invited as media to check out the Canadian regional competition in Toronto last week. Eight students from the George Brown College Chef School, The International Culinary School at the Art Institute of Vancouver, École hôtelière de la Capitale in Québec City and Montreal’s Institut de tourisme et d’hôtellerie du Québec were asked to create their ‘signature’ dish for a panel of judges including restaurant chefs, food writers and blogger David Ort of Food with Legs.

Chefs Working in Kitchen
Almost Famous Chef contestants working in the kitchen

Each competing chef was free to incorporate any ingredients and cooking techniques into their dish, and it was amazing to see what was created, and to hear the students talk to the judges about what inspired them. In most cases, the chefs chose ingredients common to their home province and talked about their passion for Canada’s bounty. Jenny and I were happy to be able to eat many of the foods we love – bison, duck, pork belly, lobster, scallops – served in interesting new ways. And we even had the opportunity to taste something new – salsify, a vegetable I’d heard of but had never tasted, and which showed up in a couple of the chefs’ dishes.

Piglet Belly and Lobster Pasta
Piglet belly with lobster ravioli from Emile Balk at Montreal’s Institut de tourisme et d’hôtellerie du Québec… one of our favorite dishes of the night

The chefs’ focus was also clearly evident in the kitchen. We were able to spend some time watching the students cook. In contrast to the chaos shown in the kitchens of shows like Top Chef and Chopped, the scene in the Calphalon Culinary Center’s professional kitchen was one of quiet intensity.

In addition to preparing composed dishes for each of the judges, plated as they might be served in a restaurant, each competing chef was also tasked with preparing tasting portions of their creations for each of the 100+ invited guests and media to sample. Guests were then asked to choose their favourite dish, with the winner receiving the People’s Choice Award. Christine Amanatidis of the International Culinary School at the Art Institute of Vancouver took this honour for her amazing dish of crisp seared duck breast served with a savoury chestnut bread pudding. I’m a huge fan of bread pudding and I’d never tried a savoury version, so Christine’s dish was really inspiring.

Chestnut Bread pudding
Chef Amanatidis’ duck with chestnut bread pudding

But the night’s big winner was Jean-François Daigle of Toronto’s George Brown College Chef School. He wowed the judges with bison tenderloin cooked sous-vide and then pan-seared, which he served with an apple-parsnip-mustard puree, asparagus and a sauce of honey, red wine and beef stock.

Almost Famous Chef contestants in Toropnto
Announcing the winner…

He’ll move on to the finals in California’s Napa Valley from March 11 to 14, for the chance to win the grand prize of $10,000 and the opportunity to work as a paid apprentice for one year with a recognized chef. The finals will be streamed live via the Almost Famous Chef website and Facebook page, so you can follow the action.

Honey-Seared Bison with Apple-Parsnip Puree
Chef Daigle’s honey-seared bison with apple-parsnip puree

In the meantime, why not recreate the winning dishes for yourself? Below are Christine Amanatidis and Jean-François Daigle’s recipes, which they’ve adapted for home cooks. Bon appetit!

Honey Seared Bison Tenderloin with Apple Parsnip Puree
Jean-Francois Daigle, The George Brown Chef’s School (Toronto)

2 cups (500 mL) beef broth
2/3 cup (150 mL) dry red wine
1 cup (250 mL) each diced carrots and onion
3/4 cup (175 mL) diced celery
2 bay leaves
1 tsp (5 mL) whole black peppercorns
1 buffalo or beef tenderloin, about 2 lbs/1 kg, cut into 8 equal portions
Sea salt and pepper
1 tbsp (15 mL) extra virgin olive oil or garlic oil
2 tbsp (25 mL) liquid honey
2 tsp (10 mL) chopped fresh thyme or 1/2 tsp/2 mL dried thyme leaves

Apple Parsnip Puree:

1 lb (500 g) parsnips, peeled and chopped
1 lb (500 g) apples, peeled, cored and chopped
2 tbsp (25 mL) 35% whipping cream, hot
2 tsp (10 mL) Dijon mustard
Salt and white pepper

Apple Parsnip Puree: In pot of boiling water cook parsnips, covered for 15 minutes or until tender. Add apples, cover and simmer for 10 minutes or until very tender. Drain well and puree in a food processor until smooth. Whisk in cream and mustard and season to taste with salt and pepper; keep warm.

Meanwhile, in saucepan bring stock, wine, carrots, celery, onion, bay leaves and peppercorns to a boil and simmer until reduced to 2-1/2 cups (625 mL). Remove bay leaves and discard.

Sprinkle tenderloin with salt and pepper. Heat oil in large skillet, in batches sear both sides of the tenderloin and place on lightly greased baking sheet. Drizzle with honey and sprinkle with thyme. Roast in 425 F (220C) oven for 5 to 7 minutes or until meat thermometer inserted in centre reaches 145 F (63 C) for medium-rare.

Spoon apple parsnip puree in centre of plate and top with tenderloin and spoon vegetable sauce around plate.

Makes 8 servings.

Duck Breast with Chestnut Bread Pudding
Christine Amanatidis, The International Culinary School at the Art Institute of Vancouver

4 boneless duck breasts
Salt and pepper

Chestnut-Chai Bread Pudding:

1 cup (250 mL) chicken broth
1 cinnamon stick
5 each whole cloves and green cardamom pods
3 slices fresh ginger
1 tbsp (15 mL) olive oil
1/4 cup (50 mL) minced shallots
1/2 cup (125 mL) whole milk
2 eggs
8 roasted chestnuts, quartered
1/2 tsp (2 mL) freshly ground black pepper
1/4 tsp (1 mL) salt
8 cups (2 L) 1/2-inch (1 cm) cubed multigrain sourdough bread
2 tbsp (25 mL) butter, broken into tiny pieces

Chestnut-Chai Bread Pudding: In saucepan bring chicken broth, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom and ginger to boil. Cover and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and steep for 5 minutes. Strain and discard spices.

Meanwhile, in a skillet heat oil over medium heat and cook shallots for about 4 minutes or until lightly browned; set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk together milk and eggs. Add steeped chicken broth, shallot, chestnuts, pepper and salt. Stir in bread to coat well. Spread evenly into 13 x 9- inch (3 L) pan lined with parchment paper. Scatter butter on top and bake in 400F (200C) oven for 25 to 30 minutes or until top is golden brown. Let cool slightly before slicing into 8 pieces, approximately 4 x 3- inches (10 cm x 7.5 cm).

Score duck skin in a cross diamond pattern and season with salt and pepper. Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat and place duck breast skin side down. Reduce heat to medium and let cook for about 5 minutes or until crisp and brown. Turn duck and place in oven for about 8 minutes or until thermometer reaches 155 F (68 C). Let stand before slicing. Place bread pudding on each plate and top with sliced duck.

Makes 8 servings.

Polpette Rustico: Meatballs with Pine Nuts, Raisins & Simple Tomato Sauce

11 Feb

I was lucky enough to share in Neil’s first experience (aka: the beginning of his love affair) with New York City. When we first met I couldn’t believe that he had never been there before. For someone who’s so passionate about food, culture, art, music and history, it seemed like a crime that he had been missing out on a city that’s known for the best of all of it.

Especially when it comes to the food. Oh, the food.

When we took that first trip together, Neil had a list of restaurants and food items to try that could have lasted us about a year and a half.

We only had 4 days. I’ll spare you the gluttonous details.

But among the amazing meals we had was the unforgettable night we shared sitting on the street-side patio at Morandi in the West Village. And the best part was that we had stumbled upon it randomly, knowing nothing about the place or the chef.

Jody Williams (now famous for her appearances as judge on Food Network’s ‘Chopped‘) was the chef there at the time and the menu really got us excited. Nothing fancy, just simple Italian trattoria fare but with the kinds of exciting ingredients that always feed our passion for food in New York.

We ordered the fried artichoke with lemon to start and I actually remember our collective reaction after taking the first bite. We got that knowing look in our eyes followed by ‘Oh My God’s and a shared laugh marking our extreme fulfillment.

We also experienced real burrata for the first time ever that night, and we knew we had stumbled upon something special.

But it was Morandi’s Sicilian meatballs (Polpettine alla Siciliana) that really stole our hearts. We were so enamored with the interesting addition of pine nuts and raisins. It seemed untraditional at the time but whenever I think of Italian meatballs now, these are the version that I crave.

We immediately set out to craft our own version when we got home. We created our recipe from scratch, inspired by the meatballs at Morandi, but adding our own touches including lemon zest, which I love in this dish. Many, many batches later, these meatballs have become one of our favorite comfort foods and always remind us of that first trip to NYC.

When I made them the other night, Neil gave me the best compliment ever when he said that our kitchen smelled like his nonna’s as soon as he walked through the door. That made me smile.

These meatballs are rustic, flavorful and delicious enough to eat on their own as a meal. We serve them with salad, crusty bread and a generous heaping of the thick, rich tomato sauce.

 

Polpette Rustico: Meatballs with Pine Nuts, Raisins & Simple Tomato Sauce

For Sauce:

 

1 medium onion, chopped

1 small bulb of fennel, chopped, fronds reserved and roughly chopped

1 bottle of strained Italian tomatoes

3 Tbsp olive oil

½ cup water

1 Tbsp balsamic vinegar

Handful basil leaves, chopped

Salt & pepper to taste

For Meatballs:

½ pound ground veal or lean ground beef

½ pound ground pork

¼ cup chopped basil leaves (approx 10 leaves)

½ cup raisins (golden or sultana)

½ cup pine nuts (you can toast them for more intense flavor or leave them raw)

1 egg

Zest of 1 lemon

1/3 cup plain breadcrumbs

* Makes approx 20 large-sized meatballs.

In a deep sauce pan, heat 3 Tbsp of olive oil on medium-high. Add the fennel and onion and sauté for 5-7 minutes. Roughly chop the fennel fronds and add to the pot. Add some salt, to taste, and keep sautéing for another 1-2 minutes.

Add tomatoes, water and basil. Mix and season again with salt and pepper. Add in the balsamic vinegar. Mix well. Lower heat to a simmer and cover.

In a large mixing bowl, add all eight ingredients for the meatballs. Mix well with your hands to incorporate all of the ingredients.

Form into balls. You can make them as big or as small as you want. If you’re eating them with pasta then make smaller balls but if you’re having them as a meal on their own (as we like to do) then form larger meatballs.

Heat about 1 Tbsp of olive oil on medium-high heat in a large frying pan. Add the meatballs and brown on all sides, turning each one using tongs. You might have to do this in two batches. When the meatballs are browned on all sides, add them one at a time right into the simmering tomato sauce.

Some pine nuts and raisins may come loose and end up in the pan. We like to scoop them up and add them right into the sauce to add extra flavor.

Once all the meatballs are added into the sauce, cover the pot and simmer on a medium-low heat for approx 35-45 minutes.

Cut into a meatball to make sure they’re cooked all the way through before serving.


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