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On the Menu: Food Events in Toronto

15 Feb

Good food on the menu

Last summer, I put up a quick post I called On the Menu, with a rundown of some cool upcoming food-related events I felt were worth highlighting. At the time, I mentioned that we’d occasionally run more posts listing events food lovers could look forward to. Well, here’s the second On the Menu post. Please excuse that it’s coming almost a year after the first one… but there are a few great annual events coming up in Toronto that food lovers should know about.

Lunch Money Day
February 16

Tomorrow is Lunch Money Day, an annual one-day initiative held by Second Harvest, Canada’s largest food rescue organization. Their mission is to collect donated excess food from manufacturers, retailers and restaurants that would otherwise go to waste, and distributing that food to community organizations across Toronto that are focused on reducing hunger. Lunch Money Day is one of their three major annual events aimed at raising the funds needed for this great organization to operate. On Thursday, February 16, pack yourself a lunch and donate the money you would have otherwise spent on lunch to Second Harvest. Every $10 donated allows Second Harvest to provide 20 meals worth of food to Toronto’s hungry. If you’re around Yonge-Dundas Square at lunch time tomorrow, you can support Second Harvest by buying your lunch from a great lineup of chefs and restaurants that will be selling meals in the square. There are other great ways to donate to Lunch Money Day, too – check them out here.

Torito pasta Viva Italia

Viva Italia! Cucina
Tuesday, February 21 to Friday, February 24

Each year, students in George Brown College’s Italian Culinary Arts program spend four months in Italy, where they have the opportunity to learn new techniques from some great Italian chefs. The week-long Viva Italia! Cucina festival at George Brown College gives the students an opportunity to share what they learned by cooking prix fixe lunches and dinners for diners at the Chef’s House restaurant. The festival also features a one-night-only multicourse dinner cooked by the students alongside a visiting chef from Italy. And the Viva Italia! Gala Tasting Reception brings together a number of great chefs from around Ontario (Rob Gentile from Buca and Fabio Bondi from Local Kitchen, to name just two), who will each present a unique Italian dish they’ve created for attendees to sample alongside a great selection of Italian wines, beers, cheeses and other treats. Jenny and I were at this event last year, and it was definitely a great night (The photo above is of one of our favorite dishes sampled, cooked by Torito’s Luis Valenzuela). If the great Italian food on offer isn’t reason enough to attend, you’ll also be supporting George Brown culinary students, as proceeds from the week’s events go to fund scholarships for the Italian Culinary Arts students. Check out the link above for more info and to buy tickets.

Terroir Symposium 2012 chefs Toronto

Terroir Symposium 2012
April 23

One of my food-related highlights of 2011 was attending the Terroir Symposium, an annual gathering of chefs, food writers, food and wine experts, and others who are passionate about influencing what we eat and how we eat. As a food blogger and relative outsider to the food industry itself, I was reluctant to go, thinking that I might feel out of my element. Turns out those fears were totally unfounded. The energy throughout the day was amazing, and the ideas shared at the seminars, tasting events and the indulgent breakfast and lunch were really inspiring. I’m planning on being there again this year, when the theme will be The New Radicals – a celebration of some of the people who are doing things that are really shaking up how we think about food. Even if you’re like me – not a chef, restaurateur or even a fulltime food writer, just someone passionate about food – this is an event worth attending, both for the lineup of great sessions planned and for the lunch, where chefs from 13 Toronto restaurants (and one from Newfoundland!) will present their interpretations of Chinese dishes.

(The photo above is from a shoot that took place recently, where several of the chefs who will participate gathered to promote the event).

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The Almost Famous Chef Competition – A Celebration of Young Talent!

11 Feb

I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on the idea of mentoring and just how important it is to offer help, advice and opportunities to young people within specialized industries.

I never would have been able to work my way through and up in the television business – a highly competitive creative industry – without the mentorship and support of some really great people along the way. So it’s now my personal policy to always try to help anyone who asks me for advice or guidance. I’ve been approached by a lot of young, talented and passionate people in the TV biz over the last few months who all seem to have the same frustration: how can anyone move up or get noticed if no one will even give them a chance?

I’m assuming it’s the same story across lots of different industries – especially creative ones – which is why an event like the S. Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef Competition is so important. I’m so happy to support this fantastic event, now in its tenth year, that celebrates young chefs just starting out in their careers.

It was founded in 2002 as a mentoring program that connects top culinary students with established chefs and influential media. It’s helped to launch hundreds of culinary careers and refined the skills of a new generation of chefs.

How cool is that?! Not to mention, inspiring.

Students from over 60 culinary schools across North America compete in smaller regional competitions and the winners from those land a spot in the big finals competition being held next month in Napa, and judged by nationally renowned chefs. 

I had the pleasure of attending the Canadian regional event in Toronto, where six top culinary students from different schools across Canada each had two hours to prepare their signature dish for a panel of distinguished chef judges, kitchen judges and media judges.

And at the same time, us lucky guests got to sample smaller tasting plates cooked by Calphalon’s chefs using the competitor’s original recipes. Such a treat!

George Brown Student Cole Nicholson's Maple & Juniper Seared Venison Loin

Judges had to scrutinize and assess the competitors on a few areas: creativity (plate appearance, taste, texture, and aroma), sanitation at their workstation, personality while being questioned by judges and media, and ability to perform under pressure. 

DeAille (Yee Man) Tam's Halibut marinated w/mirin & sake

At one point, I snuck into the kitchen where the student chefs were hard at work. I expected to see chaos, but the chefs were all working methodically and calmly, with focused concentration.

George Brown Chef School student DeAille (Yee Man) Tam working in the kitchen

I was also extremely impressed with how well they each faced the judges, answering their tough questions with confidence and obvious passion for their craft.

Daniela Molettieri facing the panel of judges

The winner of the night was Daniela Molettieri from Institut de tourisme et d’hôtellerie du Québec, with her beautiful signature dish of fillet of veal stuffed with wild mushrooms served with butternut squash puree. She used milk-fed veal from Quebec and locally grown vegetables, and drizzled the meat with foie gras sauce.

The judges kept saying how impressed they were with a unique cooking technique she used.  I took the opportunity to ask her about it afterwards. She told me that she wrapped the veal in tin foil and submerged the package directly into the flame on a burner for about six minutes, allowing the meat to cook evenly all the way around while staying pink in the centre, much like cooking sous vide. (Apologies to Daniela if I didn’t describe it exactly right!)

Daniela's Winning Dish at the AF Chef Competition

Daniela was confident, well spoken and knowledgeable while still being very humble. The judges asked her why she chose to work at two different stations on opposite sides of the large kitchen, creating more stress for herself. She responded by saying she likes a good challenge. My kind of gal!

Furthering the importance of mentorship, upon winning she said “I owe a lot of my success this evening to Chef Côté, my ITHQ advisor…He spent a lot of time helping me prepare for this competition and his patience really paid off.”

The crowd got to choose a People’s Choice winner, which was given to Anne-Marie Plourde, a student at École hôtelière de la Capitale. She won the hearts of everyone in attendance with her signature dish of Roasted Duck Breast and Gingerbread-Crusted Foie Gras. Our tasting portion of this was so flavorful and delicious.

Anne-Marie Plourde’s Roasted Duck Breast & Gingerbread Crusted Foie Gras

Congratulations to the chefs, who all did a great job competing that night. And best of luck to Daniela, who will be representing Canada at the finals in Napa. You can check out the AF Facebook page for more info and to find out the results!

And for an added treat, I’m going to post two recipes from the competition that have been adapted for all you home cooks. Stay tuned for those, coming up tomorrow…

Touring the Mediterranean at Mideastro

31 Jan

Mideastro Toronto

My background is Italian, and Jenny is Jewish. In the five years we’ve been together, we’ve learned that our cultures share a lot of similarities—family is important, people tend to talk loudly and passionately, and food plays an important role in bringing families together to eat, talk loudly and share stories.

Another key similarity lies in the fact that both Italian and Jewish cuisines vary broadly depending on geography. In Italy, northerners will commonly cook with meat and dairy as central ingredients, whereas in the south, the availability of great seafood and the proximity of Greece, parts of Africa and the Middle East influence the flavours of many dishes. Jewish cuisine is even more diverse, influenced by both dietary laws and the food traditions of the various countries where Jews have settled over the centuries.

Last week I had the opportunity to sample the menu at Mideastro Yorkville, which opened last July following the success of the restaurant’s initial Thornhill location. Heading the Yorkville kitchen is chef Benny Cohen, who presents dishes that are Israeli-focused while also incorporating flavours from the many Mediterranean countries that have influenced Jewish cuisine.

“Both my parents are Moroccan Jews who raised me in Israel, where I was exposed to cuisines and flavours from all over the world by the travelling and migrating Jews,” Cohen told me when I asked about what has influenced his cooking style. He says his passion was sparked as a child while learning about Moroccan cooking in the kitchens of his grandmothers, and was furthered by studying at a branch of the Cordon Bleu cooking school in Israel and then working in restaurant kitchens in Spain, Greece, New York and Mexico before coming to Toronto.

mideastro lamb soup

The food at Mideastro draws upon all of these cultures. We started with a tomato-based Moroccan lamb soup, which, despite the Middle Eastern spice profile, reminded me of a much richer version of the classic Italian minestrone – a soup I’ve never particularly liked, while I’d gladly eat Mideastro’s lamb soup again.

Mideastro appetizers

The next plate offered two dishes from the restaurant’s appetizer list. Cohen described his Baladi eggplant as a sort of “bruschetta salad,” combining smoky grilled eggplant, chopped tomatoes, Israeli feta, roasted garlic and herbed tahini. And Lahma Ba’ajin is a Damascus-style flatbread topped with ground lamb, chickpeas, tomatoes and sheep yogurt tahini. Cohen said the flatbread’s origins date back more than 500 years.

carpaccio Mideastro Toronto

We also sampled Cohen’s take on carpaccio. He wraps 12-week-aged waygu beef tenderloin around arugula and thin slices of parmesan, slicing the rolls maki-style and drizzling balsamic and black truffle oil over top. He called this the “lazy” version, because it saves him from having to compose the dish on a plate. But I enjoyed being able to pick up everything in one bite. Also on the plate was a grilled calamari dish, served atop an oxtail lentil pot au feu.

Already feeling full, it was on to the mains. The first we were served was chef Cohen’s take on chraime, a fish, tomato and vegetable casserole with Sephardic roots that he told me is his signature dish. In Cohen’s version, baked snapper is plated on risotto flavoured with harisa, and topped with a tomato-root vegetable sauce flavoured with smoked paprika and fish stock. This was easily the best dish of the night, and it’s definitely something I’d go back to Mideastro to eat again.

Mideastro Toronto chraime fish

We also had Mideastro’s lamb and beef kufta. The spiced ground meat dish is popular throughout the Mediterranean, taking the form of either meatloaf or meatballs and with slight spelling variations depending on the country—kufta in Hebrew, kefta in Morocco and koobideh in Iran. Cohen serves his ground meat on a stew of tomato and eggplant, and tops the dish with a thin, crisp layer of focaccia that the diner breaks open to reveal the meat and vegetables. It’s served with a yogurt and tahini sauce on the side.

kofta Mideastro Yorkville

Finally, we had dessert—a nutella parfait with frozen nutella cream, caramelized bananas and a piece of salted pecan brittle; and Fig Kataiv, which was layers of spiced mascarpone, fresh figs and pistachios sandwiched between crisp layers of shredded phyllo dough. I really enjoyed this one, as the flavours reminded me of both baklava and tiramisu.

desserts Mideastro Toronto

Cohen told me that he thinks the Toronto dining scene has lacked a proper representation of Israeli and Middle Eastern cuisine. “People tend to think of Middle Eastern cuisine exclusively as the fast, street food that can be seen in Toronto,” he said, noting that even the quick Middle Eastern eats so popular here – falafel, shawarma, etc – are pale imitations of the originals due to the fact certain ingredients aren’t available here.

To that end, Cohen says he’s trying to bridge a gap and offer this city a better idea of the dining options, both fast and formal, they’d find around the Mediterranean. “I’m hoping to bring a truly unique experience to Torontonians by bringing the flavours of the Middle East mixed with my expression, my knowledge and my technique in a fine dining setting, and also showcasing a 2,000-year-old voyage of the Jews through history, time and space.”

We Have a Winner…

30 Jan

S. Pellegrino almost famous chef competition

Congratulations to Natalie, who won the $150 gift certificate to Lee in our Almost Famous Chef Competition draw. Here’s what she had to say about her most memorable food experience:

“My top food experience I can remember is a gnocchi dish I had at a little restaurant in Rome. My sisters and I had been backpacking through Europe for a couple of weeks and hadn’t treated ourselves to any “good” food in order to save money, but once we got to Rome we decided to go to a nice restaurant to treat ourselves. There I had the best gnocchi I’ve ever had in my life – I remember wiping every single drop of sauce off my plate. I hope I can remember where that place is if I ever get to go back one day!”

Thanks to everyone for the great comments about your food experiences. I’m glad that we chose a winner at random, because having to pick the best entry from all the stories submitted would have been a difficult task. Natalie’s entry was one of five we received that drew upon an experience in Italy. Others mentioned memorable meals in other parts of Europe, while some had interesting stories to tell from even more exotic locations (Bora Bora, Bali, Peru). One commenter mentioned Treadwell restaurant in the Niagara region, where Jenny and I had one of our most memorable meals a few years ago, and another talked about Chicago, where we’re hoping to finally visit together this year (hopefully we’ll get to eat at Charlie Trotter’s iconic restaurant, which is closing this August after 25 years). For some, the most memorable food experiences took place in their own kitchen. Ultimately, I think the range of stories we read serves as proof of something Jenny and I both believe – wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, food will always be a central part of what makes it special.

I have so many great food memories. But Italy – where Jenny and I travelled together in 2010 – stands out for so many reasons: taking a cooking class in Florence taught by June Bellamy, a native of Burma who’d relocated to Italy in the 1980s to teach both Italian and international cooking; discovering the Florentine delicacy lampredotto – boiled cow stomach served on a bun with salsa verde (sounds awful, tastes incredible) – at Nerbone in Florence’s amazing Mercato Centrale; and a meal at Ristorante Papa Re in Bologna that was life changing (a term I don’t throw around loosely).

Thanks again to everyone for entering – and don’t forget to come back in a few days to see Jenny’s look at all the action from tonight’s Almost Famous Canadian regional finals.

Almost Famous Chef Competition and Win Dinner at Lee Restaurant!

25 Jan

S. Pellegrino almost famous chef competition

Last year, Jenny and I were invited to the S. Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef Competition’s Canada regionals in Toronto. The event brought together culinary students from schools all across the country, all vying for the chance to represent Canada at the Almost Famous Chef Competition final in Napa Valley, California. We loved the chance to see some of Canada’s next generation of chefs showing off their skills under pressure, and we were amazed by the dishes they produced for judging.

This year marks the 10th S. Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef Competition, and the Canadian regionals are coming up next Monday, January 30. We’ll have a rundown of all the action after the event. But in the meantime, we had the chance to chat with Cole Nicholson, a culinary student at George Brown College who’ll take part in the competition.

We were also given a great prize to give to one of our lucky readers: a $150 gift certificate to chef Susur Lee’s Toronto restaurant, Lee. Keep reading to find out how you can win. But first, check out my interview with Cole Nicholson.

Cole Nicholson George Brown

How long have you been cooking?
I’ve been cooking for about three years now. I started working in a restaurant when I was 17 years old and I took the culinary management program at George Brown when I finished high school. I’m usually one of the youngest people in the kitchen, if not the youngest, so it makes it kind of fun and a lot more people are open to teaching me new things.

What first inspired you to get involved in the kitchen?
The high school that I went to was originally a trades high school when it was opened; it had professional auto shops, carpentry labs and a full production kitchen. Part of the curriculum was to take a trade class. I decided to take cooking because nothing else really interested me and I thought it would be a good life skill to have. I ended up taking it all through high school and I really learned a lot. In my grade 11 year, the school got a new cooking teacher. He was completely different from any other teacher at the school – he was only 27 years old and this was his first teaching job. He was fresh out of the industry and was up on modern cooking techniques and styles. He made me realize that cooking could be cool. He changed a standard cooking class into something so much more; we learned how to make fresh tomato sauce, veal jus, homemade pasta and ravioli, even butchery. If not for him, I would have chosen a completely different career.

Why did you choose the culinary arts program at George Brown? How have the curriculum, instructors and interactions with others in Toronto’s food community helped you expand your skills in the kitchen?
When I first started researching culinary schools, George Brown really stood out to me because of the number of people that have graduated there and gone on to be successful. Almost every great kitchen in Toronto has someone that went there and I thought it was a great way to make connections. The teachers are amazing. Every one of them knows a lot and they are passionate about teaching. Many of them have great connections and are open to helping you with your career.

What cuisines and/or ingredients are you most passionate about?
I just got back from working and living in Italy for four months as part of my Italian program at George Brown. I worked in a great restaurant called Il Baluardo in the Piedmonte region of northern Italy. It was extreme culture shock at first, but being back home I miss everything about Italy. They have an amazing respect for food and ingredients and their lives revolve around their daily meals. I learned so much while in Italy and I came back to Canada with a lot of passion for Italian food and culture.

How would you define your cooking style? 
I don’t really think I am old enough or experienced enough to really have my own “style” of cooking yet. I love to learn new techniques and try to figure out new ways of preparing something. My favourite styles to learn from are chefs who use a lot of old school techniques and flavours in their cooking, but done in a modern way to get the most out of their product.

What current food trends are you most excited about?
The trend that excites me most right now is chefs having relations with farmers and purveyors and really promoting them in their restaurants and on their menus. I think this all really started with Thomas Keller at the French Laundry, but many other great chefs around the world and in Toronto have gone on to do the same.

How are you preparing for the S. Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef Competition?
I was first notified that I would be competing in the competition by my teacher back when I was in Italy. I was notified in October and had to have my menu submitted in November. I had no way of practicing while in Italy, so I did a lot of research on seasonal products of Canada at the time of the competition. I put a menu together using seasonal products that I find interesting and challenging to work with. I was a little homesick at the time, so my dish is pretty Canadian. When I got back to Canada a few weeks ago, I started practicing at the school and the dish came together. I’ve been practicing two or three days a week and refining the dish.

Have you heard much about previous years’ competitions to get a sense of what to expect and what’s worked for the competing chefs?
I had not really heard much about it until the student from George Brown (Jean-François Daigle) won the Canadian regional competition last year. His coach, who is now my coach, was one of my culinary instructors last year and I expressed interest to him in competing this year. One of the students in my program, Brian Cheng, competed two years ago and once he found out I would be competing he gave me a lot of helpful advice. He told me a lot of basic considerations to take into account when preparing the menu: proteins that I shouldn’t use, things the judges look for.

What are you hoping to do with your career once you’ve graduated from George Brown?
I really want to work in the U.S. I think that they have a lot to offer and I could learn a lot working there. Chefs there are combining some amazing skills and techniques with great products to produce some of the best food in the world. I have a list of places that I want to work at: The French Laundry in Napa Valley, Le Bernardin in New York City and Alinea in Chicago.

What chef would you most love to cook with?
If I could cook a meal with any chef, it would be Thomas Keller. I had the opportunity to meet him and hear him speak when he was in Toronto a few years ago. He completely changed my outlook on food. His whole approach to food and respect for ingredients and people is something to learn from. The French Laundry cookbook is like my bible, not for the recipes necessarily, but for the philosophy and wisdom. I had the opportunity to eat at his restaurant Per Se in New York City last year and it was a life changing experience. I knew after that meal what I wanted to do with my life.

WIN A $150 GIFT CERTIFICATE TO LEE RESTAURANT!

For a chance at this great prize, here’s what you need to do:

Click here to leave a comment, telling us about your top food experience. It could be a great restaurant meal you had, a food adventure like taking a cooking class in a foreign country, something amazing you cooked in your own kitchen, or a food memory from your childhood. The possibilities are endless. Whatever your favorite food experience is, we want to hear about it.

We’ll take all the comments we’ve received by 11:59 p.m. this Sunday, January 29, assign each a random number, and then choose a winner at random using random.org.

**You don’t have to live in Toronto to win, but the prize includes the restaurant gift certificate only (no travel expenses, etc), which means a winner from outside of the Greater Toronto Area must plan to be visiting Toronto in the near future to use the gift certificate.

Feasting with Friends: An Unforgettable Meal by Massimo Bruno

6 Sep

I’m a pretty sentimental person, with family and friends being at the top of my priority list. So when Neil planned a night where I could spend quality time with family & friends, feast on amazing food that held sentimental value and I didn’t have to clean up a single thing – it resulted in one memorable night. And major husband points for a creative birthday gift to celebrate my 32nd year.

Last summer Neil and I travelled to Italy for a friend’s wedding and our own belated honeymoon. We visited Rome, Florence, the Tuscan countryside, and our favorite place of all, Bologna. Needless to say, we feasted our way through each region, leaving no stone unturned when it came to trying the special food items that each place had to offer.

That’s where the sentimental part of our recent Italian feast came into play.

Massimo Bruno has been a well-known chef in Toronto for years and we’d wanted to try his ‘Italian Supper Club’ dinners that he holds monthly, but never seemed to get around to it. Little did I know, Neil had been planning a special Massimo night all our own. He emailed back and forth with Massimo, trying to create the perfect menu that would take me on a trip down memory lane, right back to our Italian getaway. And best of all, we would be able to share some of the things we fell in love with in Italy, with the people that we love back at home.

Massimo cooks authentic homestyle Italian food, and explores different regions of his native Italy through cooking the dishes that are unique to each area. He shares not just the foods and methods from each region, but also the stories that go along with them. He cooks out of his kitchen studio in a beautiful loft in the city, where guests lounge at one long candle-lit table as Massimo and his team cook the meal. The feeling is friendly, rustic, casual, and Massimo himself adds to the atmosphere; sharing stories with everyone, taking the time to explain what’s about to be served, where it came from and most importantly, why.

I was almost brought to tears when I got a glimpse of the menu that Neil and Massimo had put together for me. Massimo had even attempted a few new dishes for the first time ever, on Neil’s request. His passion really came through as he talked about each item on the menu, and his stories coupled with the amazing food transported everyone to Italy that night. Here’s a taste of my special meal…

The night started off with Massimo’s Focaccia Barese, which was probably one of the best focaccia’s I’ve ever had. Thankfully he warned us not to fill up on it, because I probably could have eaten an entire plate of the doughey, salty, tomatoe-ey goodness.

But we needed to save room for the copious amounts of food that came next.

The antipasti course could have been a perfect meal on its own: Burrata imported from Italy (flown in once a week and available at Maselli’s on Danforth!), Prosciutto di Parma & wild boar prosciutto with gorgeous roasted figs.

“Trota della nera” – Trout with seasoned breadcrumbs. Massimo kept telling us how incredibly simple this dish was, but everyone was raving about it. The flavors were bursting out of the lemony breadcrumbs and the tender fish fell apart with every forkful.

I didn’t get a good picture of the fried zucchini blossoms stuffed with ricotta, but Massimo’s version was just as delicious as the ones we ate almost daily on our trip to Italy. He made a beautiful salad of breaded oyster mushrooms on arugula, which complemented the other antipasti so perfectly.

Next came homemade pasta – Pappardelle al Cinghiale, aka: wild boar ragout. Neil and I had had an unforgettable meal of simple stewed wild boar at the agritourismo where we stayed in the Tuscan countryside, and Massimo’s pasta brought me right back to that place.

If one pasta wasn’t enough, Massimo also made a dish inspired by our most memorable meal in Bologna, at a family-owned restaurant just off the beaten path called Pape Re. We had ordered a pasta with homemade pistachio pesto topped with crispy prosciutto and the flavor was so unique and special that I talked about it for months. Massimo’s Bucatini al pesto di pistacchi was prepared differently, but I so appreciated that he had researched the dish and created his own from scratch for the very first time. His was absolutely amazing, another favorite of the group.

Then came fried artichokes in tomato sauce, Spigola al sale – fish cooked in salt crust – and perfectly-cooked zucchini with cherry tomatoes.  You know you’re eating authentic Italian food made with love when something as simple as zucchini and tomatoes takes your breath away with every bite.

We were already full when the smell of hot butter came wafting through the air, followed by the sound of saltimbocca (veal with prosciutto & sage) frying in it. The dish was beautiful and so delicious that we all somehow found that last bit of room when it came to the table.

The grand finale and probably the most meaningful dish of all was dessert: Schiacciata all’Uva – sweet focaccia with grapes. At that same agriturismo in Tuscany, on a lovely evening overlooking the hills and olive groves, Neil and I had this delicious and interesting dessert. The family who own and operate the agritourismo make wine and olive oil, so their homemade version used small wine grapes folded into the sweet layers of dough. Massimo used regular grapes and his version was as amazing as I had hoped. I had been talking about this dessert since our trip and have always wanted to try making it. Massimo nailed it. Sweet, slightly crunchy, doughey and moist, it was the most amazing ending to a seriously unforgettable feast.

There really is nothing like great food & wine coupled with great friends, conversation and the warmth of the happy memories that go along with it all.

And I’m so lucky to have a husband who ‘gets’ it and knows how important those simple things are that mean so much. 

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… 

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