Learning About Canadian Beef

19 Jul

Canada Beef

Aside from being lots of fun and something that Jenny and I enjoy doing together, this blogging thing has connected us with some interesting opportunities. There have been chances to preview new restaurant menus in Toronto. We were part of an all-Canadian recipe creation event centred around Canadian beef, for which we invented our now infamous Moogarita beef cocktail.

And now, something new: I’ve been chosen as a brand ambassador for Canadian Beef, and I’ll be spending the next year helping to share information, create recipes and just generally shine a light on one of Canada’s most important agricultural products.

Why am I doing this, you might ask? I’m not doing it because Canadian Beef is paying me (though they are compensating me for the monthly assignments I’ll be completing, with a small stipend each month). And I’m not doing it because they’ll be supplying me with some great beef products to showcase and cook with (although they will be, and I’m quite excited at that).

I am doing this because I’m passionate about good food, and good food produced in Canada by hardworking farmers and others. And I’ve always loved cooking with beef, and sharing my recipes with others. And as a Canadian Beef brand ambassador, I’ll get to do just that, and hopefully help Communal Table readers boost their beef knowledge.

My first monthly assignment was simply to read through the beefinfo.org website, to better understand how the organization supports Canadian beef producers and consumers. And they wanted me to share with you my favorite part of the Canadian Beef website. As a cook who is always looking for ideas on recipes and techniques, the Cooking Lessons section was definitely the one that jumped out at me. It’s packed with step-by-step lessons, with how-to videos and recipes to match, on how to expertly prepare your beef using a variety of methods—grilling, braising, etc.

And you can submit a question for the Beef Expert, which will be answered on the site. Currently there are more than 20 questions with answers listed, everything from “How large a roast do I need to buy?” to “Do you have some tips for cooking beef in the slow cooker?”

Check out the site when you have a chance!

Smoked Potato Towers with Chorizo and Arugula Pesto

16 Jun

Smoked potato tower chorizo pesto

Here’s a little piece of info I’m not sure I’ve shared before with readers of Communal Table. A long time ago (about 10 years or so), in a land far, far away (Winnipeg, Manitoba), I was hired in my first job as a trade magazine editor. The task: create Canada’s first magazine devoted entirely to the potato. As a twenty-something from Toronto who’d never set foot on a farm, let alone pulled a potato from the earth, I immediately thought two things: one, the magazine was destined to be a spectacular failure; and two, my career in magazine publishing was going to be brief and disasterous.

A decade later, I can happily report that I’m still working in magazines. And, my colleagues and I managed to create a successful magazine (which is still publishing today, long after my reign ended). As dumbfounded as I was by the idea that some city kid should be running a magazine devoted to Canada’s most important produce crop, I really enjoyed the time I spent learning about all aspects of potato growing, production and marketing. So when Jenny and I were invited to participate in a food blogger competition, sponsored by Ontario’s own EarthFresh, to create a recipe using the company’s Klondike Rose potatoes for its Foodies for Klondike Rose Contest, I jumped at the chance to shine a spotlight on potatoes once again.

After brainstorming a few recipe ideas, my mind drifted to a barbecue we’d been at a couple weeks earlier, where a friend made smoked pulled pork. While I’ve smoked meats and fish a couple times, I’d never tried to smoke a potato. And since Jenny and I are always up for a new culinary challenge, the idea behind this recipe for smoked potato towers with chorizo and arugula pesto took shape from there.

Potatoes wood chips smoker box

This recipe is essentially a three-part process. While it’s time-consuming to prepare the homemade chorizo (which I did Mexican style, in that there’s no sausage casing, but using more Spanish flavours), make the arugula pesto and smoke the potatoes, none of the steps are difficult. This is a definite weekend dish, something to share with friends or family while sitting on a patio and enjoying summer.

Smoked potatoes on pan

Smoked Potato Towers with Chorizo and Arugula Pesto (Serves 4)

For the arugula pesto:
1/3 C grated Pecorino Romano cheese
2 large handfuls arugula, chopped
1 handful parsley, chopped
1 handful of pine nuts, lightly toasted in a dry pan
1/4 C good olive oil, preferably Spanish
A pinch of salt

Add all ingredients into a food processor. Blend until  well combined, adding a few more drizzles of olive oil as you go to get the right consistency (you want it fairly thick, but more of a puree than a paste).

For the chorizo:
1 lb ground pork
1 large garlic clove, finely diced
2 tsp smoked paprika
1 tsp cumin
½ tsp fennel pollen or crushed fennel seeds
1/2 tsp cayenne
3/4 tsp ground black pepper
3/4 tsp salt
1/4 cup water

Mix all spices in a small bowl, and stir in water to make a thin paste. Place ground pork in a larger bowl. Add spice paste and diced garlic and use your hands to combine all ingredients. Cover and refrigerate at least 3 hours, but preferably overnight, to allow flavours to come together.

For the smoked potatoes:

Cut potatoes lengthwise into slices roughly half an inch thick. Use one or two potatoes per person – you should be able to get roughly four oval-shaped slices from each potato.

Coat potato slices in olive oil and a sprinkle of salt. Lay slices on a barbecue-safe pan that will fit across the middle of your grill.

Set up your grill to smoke over indirect heat. (I have a gas grill, so that’s the type of BBQ I know how to smoke on. If you’ve never smoked on a gas grill, here’s a good how-to video). Once your chips have started to smoke, place your pan of potato slices on your middle grate. Close the lid and let the potatoes cook at about 250 degrees F for 30 to 40 minutes. Resist the temptation to lift the lid during the cooking process, since doing so releases smoke needed to flavour the potatoes. Do check the potatoes at the 30-minute mark to see if they’re cooked through. If not, let them cook another five or 10 minutes until they’re finished – the slices should have a nice brown crust on the outside without being burnt, and the inside should be cooked but still fairly firm. Remove potatoes from the BBQ.

While potatoes are smoking, brown the chorizo in a pan over medium heat. Add 1/2 C of red wine. Lower heat and let chorizo simmer for 10 minutes or so, until some of the wine has been absorbed.

To assemble, place one smoked potato slice on a plate. Spread a spoonful of pesto across the slice, and top with a spoonful of chorizo. Top with another potato, spread with another spoonful of pesto, then add another spoonful of chorizo. Top with another smoked potato slice, and sprinkle a pinch of smoked paprika over top to garnish.

Serve as an appetizer, or enjoy as a main with salad and grilled vegetables.

Smoked potato tower with chorizo and arugula pesto

A Father’s Day Tribute & Contest from Fiesta Farms

12 Jun

I could listen to people’s personal stories about cooking and eating with their families for hours on end. Food truly does bring people together and bonds family members.

I’ll never forget witnessing the intense feeling of sadness and regret when Neil’s aunt passed away and his cousin, her son, came face to face with the reality that he would never taste her hand-made lasagna ever again…That moment touched me deeply.

Our family recipes, food rituals and meals should never be taken for granted.

Father’s day is coming up this weekend and Fiesta Farms is running a really awesome contest in honor of dads and grandfathers and the food memories that surround them.

The 2012 Apron Strings Contest is a call out to Torontonians to share your stories, recipes and food memories about your dad or grandfather for a chance at winning one of three gift certificates to the store. All entries will be posted on the Fiesta Farms website and the top 3 will win the prize. You have until June 30th to share your story and you can enter here.

On top of that, the good folks at Fiesta Farms have put together Father’s Day cooking videos featuring families sharing recipes and cooking together for our viewing pleasure. They’re very cute and fun to watch.

The contest inspired Neil and me to think about our own personal stories and we both decided to write separate entries for the contest.

As a tribute to our dads, we wanted to share what we wrote with our Communal Table readers.

Happy upcoming Father’s Day to our amazing fathers Phil Tryansky & Nick Faba and to all the dads out there!

Jenny’s Father’s Day Tribute Story:

Steak and French Fries – The Other Side of My Grandfather       

This one’s about my grandfather’s cooking but my dad is just as much an important part of the memory as a whole…

My grandfather was a complex man. The kind of person who didn’t say a lot and had a presence that some found intimidating. We spent many Christmas vacations staying at my grandparent’s condo in Florida. A traditional man, my grandfather was not one to help out in the kitchen and spent most of his days playing cards with his friends. But –my favorite memory of him, one that is still so vivid in my mind, is when he cooked for the family his one and only signature meal: Steak and French fries.

He would banish everyone from the kitchen and get to work slicing and peeling potatoes to make homemade thick-cut fries (legendary in my own father’s childhood memories) and spice up huge steaks. I remember he would wear an apron, which would always make me take notice and instantly softened his stature. The smell of the fries frying always made everyone salivate and we couldn’t wait to get our hands on a plate of them. They were the best I’ve ever had; Oily, salty and soft yet crispy. I don’t know how he achieved perfection every time.

He served the meal with extra spicy pickles that my dad would always proudly note my grandfather ‘doctored up’ himself and we would all sit down to a meal that allowed me to see a whole other side of my ‘Zaidie’.

I cherish that special food memory.

** When I shared this story with my dad, he in turn shared this happy little nugget with me: “I can still smell the fries and imagine their taste with salt and ketchup. But I especially remember how happy it made him to make all that for all his kids”

Neil’s Father’s Day Tribute Story:

I don’t have a lot of childhood food memories that include my father. He worked a lot, and while we were fortunate to be able to sit down to meals as a family on a fairly regular basis, my mom was often the one to cook those meals. And since she’s always been something of an amateur gourmet chef and genuinely loves cooking, I tend to consider her my most important culinary influence.

But in so many ways, my dad is responsible for how I think about and approach food. He was born in Italy, moving to Canada when he was 11 years old. Since crossing the ocean for a new life, his family has held on to the recipes and food traditions that had been so much a part of their ancestry and history in the “Old Country.” My zios (Italian for uncles) keep expansive vegetable gardens at their suburban Toronto homes, cellar salumi and cheeses in their basements to eat when they’ve been aged to perfection, and make their own (addictively drinkable) wine. Those ingredients have been central to many family meals I enjoyed as a child, and continue to enjoy now with my wife and other new family members.

And while I’ve only recently realized it, my father is a pretty amazing cook in his own right. My parents separated when I was 16, and in the years immediately after that I don’t recall a lot of great meals with my dad. What I do remember (and what my sister and I tease him about still, even though I think it only happened once) was my dad serving us mashed potatoes that turned out to be from a box. 

At 19, I moved away to go to university, and after graduation I continued to live away from home for another five years. It was over that 10-year stretch that a slow, almost imperceptible change began to take place in my dad’s kitchen. Each time I came home and sat down to a meal, something new and different was in front of me – expertly prepared fish, risottos and meat dishes. When I started bringing Jenny to dinner at my dad’s, she was quick to compliment him on what he’d made, often asking for the recipe and for his cooking tips. 

I remember how I felt the first time she said to me, after a dinner my dad had cooked, “I can see where you get your great cooking skills from.” It was at that point that I began to realize that my father had always had great culinary skills. It had just taken him a while to feel the passion needed to really showcase those skills, and it took me even longer to recognize a part of him we’d both taken for granted. And I think that’s a lesson about fathers: Often, it’s so easy for kids to focus on ways they think their dads don’t measure up. But by doing that, we’re often missing out on appreciating the great men they truly are.

Homemade Chicken Burgers – A Kickoff to Summer!

30 May

Summer’s here, and it seemed to come on fast. I was just getting used to the no socks with shoes thing when full-on sandals and bare legs weather came out of nowhere.

But I say bring it on.

I love this time of year and I find it inspires me to dream up seasonally appropriate meals meant to be eaten outdoors.

The other night I had a craving for chicken burgers, and we initially went hunting for good quality pre-made ones at a local butcher shop. But when we couldn’t find any, I decided to make them from scratch and I’m so happy I did. It was way less of a big deal than I originally imagined, and it was worth it once we sat down to dig into these juicy and flavorful burgers.

It was Neil’s idea to buy ground chicken breasts and ground chicken thighs. I think that’s what ensured the chicken burgers were so tender and juicy and not dry. 

I’ll admit I’m a bit of a nut when it comes to kitchen safety and bacteria where chicken is concerned. I often avoid cooking it altogether because I’m that paranoid about salmonella poisoning (Yes, there was a traumatic experience in my past that made me this way).

But luckily, with chicken burgers you pretty much only need to use one bowl and one platter to hold the patties once they’re formed. I’m not going to lie though, I did throw on a pair of latex gloves to mix the meat by hand and form the patties. It actually worked beautifully! (If this makes me a freak, at least I’m a cautious freak.)

These chicken burgers are simple enough in flavor that they won’t fight with any toppings, but flavorful enough that you don’t need to heap the toppings on if you don’t want to.

We ate ours with guacamole & spicy greens on one night and with Peri-Peri hot sauce & sweet/spicy preserved shallots on another. They’re pretty versatile and would probably go well with anything you dream up to top them with.

Happy summer!

Communal Table’s Chicken Burgers

1 package ground chicken breasts

1 package ground chicken thighs

2 large shallots, diced

Handful of cilantro, chopped

Garlic powder

Onion powder

Ground cumin

Ground coriander

Sea salt and fresh ground pepper

**All spices to taste (eyeball it!)

Mix all the ingredients really well in a bowl and form into patties. If you’re a paranoid bacteria-phobe like I am, use gloves for this step but either way, make sure you wash your hands well and be careful about cross contamination.

Barbeque the burgers for approximately 6-7 minutes per side on medium-high heat.

Serve on a delicious bun along with your favorite toppings and eat outdoors – it’s summer!  

Spiced Prunes from The Manse Boutique Inn

28 May

Weekend getaways can be so restorative, especially in a place as magical and charming as Prince Edward County.

Neil and I fell in love with the County a few years ago when we first visited for the annual event Taste the County and then again for The Great Canadian Cheese Festival. Every time we’ve been back since we’ve fallen deeper and deeper for this exceptional region of Ontario.

There’s no shortage of things to do and see from visiting wineries, farms and local artisans, to antique hunting, beach-going, walking the main streets of the small towns, and of course, eating. You do not go hungry when you visit the County. 

With so many local farmers and food producers, there’s a real sense in the County that people truly care about good food and using the freshest local ingredients. 

On our most recent trip to PEC, we had the pleasure of staying at The Manse Boutique Inn in Picton only three weeks after its grand opening and it was absolutely spectacular. Aside from the stunning setting in the century old building, the food at The Manse is definitely a draw thanks to Chef Chris Wylie who runs the inn with his wife Kathleen.

Breakfast is included when you book one of their seven lovely rooms and it was a highlight of our weekend. Chef Wylie smokes his own bacon, cures his own salmon and takes a lot of pride in his food, which was apparent to Neil and I through chatting with him.

Chef Wylie’s delicate cured salmon on potato pancake

House-smoked bacon & the most amazing ‘Hoito pancakes’ at The Manse

He was kind enough to share his recipe for his delicious spiced prunes, which he serves at the breakfast buffet along with thick Greek yogurt and a homemade nutty granola – a perfect breakfast in my books.

Thanks to Chef Wylie for sharing this recipe with Communal Table readers!

Spiced Prunes

500 ml Earl Grey tea

150 ml Marsala wine

100 g brown sugar

Large zest of one orange

1 clove, whole

1 cinnamon stick

1 star anise

250 g prunes

Combine all ingredients, bring to a boil and simmer for 20 minutes. Remove zest and spices. Serve the spiced prunes with the syrup along with yogurt & granola.

Toronto Taste Preview with Chef Roger Mooking

15 May

Roger Mooking Toronto Taste

Less than two weeks to go before Toronto Taste takes over the Royal Ontario Museum! On Sunday, May 27, more than 60 of Toronto’s best chefs and 30 wine, beer and other beverage producers will gather at the ROM to serve Toronto food lovers in support of Second Harvest.

Earlier this month, Communal Table spoke with Chris Zielinski, executive chef at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, about cooking, Toronto and why he’s participating in this year’s Toronto Taste. This time around, we connected with Roger Mooking – Juno Award-winning musician-turned-chef, Food Network personality and this year’s Toronto Taste co-host (with Bob Blumer).

How many times have you participated in Toronto Taste? What do you enjoy most about it?
This is my second year. I most enjoy seeing all the chefs there with their proudest dishes on display, and knowing that we get to hang out once a year and feed many, many people in the process after the event is over.

What makes you, as a chef, want to participate in Toronto Taste?
We play a part in feeding 700,000 meals over the course of a year. That is important. It also showcases the best of the city’s culinary scene in one place. I participate because I’m sympathetic to families in need and we are able to help them and have a fun day all at the same time

What have been the biggest influences on your cooking, in terms of people, places, cuisine styles, etc?
My biggest influence has been curiosity. I’m forever curious about food, ingredients and techniques, and this drives me forward every single day.

Before you became a chef, you were a Juno Award-winning musician with Bass is Base. How is making music like cooking?
Music and cooking are creative outlets. Sometimes the recipe has instruments, musicians, and lyrics. Sometimes the song has ingredients, pots, pans and some knives. In the end, all the artists’ tools are used to make something to consume, either with the ear or your mouth.

Over the past two years, you’ve sold your stakes in both your Toronto restaurants, Kultura and Nyood. Besides Toronto Taste and the Food Network, what other projects are currently keeping you busy and inspired?
My album that I just finished; my show Heat Seekers; new show Man, Fire, Food; recipe testing; and many other things that will be coming out over the next while… can’t let out all my secrets. Stick around – I’ve got a few more tricks up my sleeve.

Drink Up: Smoked Old Fashioned Cocktail

23 Apr

smoked old fashioned cocktail

If such a thing exists, I definitely have culinary ADD. When I got my ice cream maker a couple years ago, I made ice cream obsessively for weeks and weeks. Then I stopped. Then I started again when the ice cream bug hit me. When I discovered ramps, I cooked with them all the time for a really brief stretch (of course, that’s partly due to the fact that ramp season is so short).

A while back, I discovered lapsang souchong tea. We went for high tea to celebrate my mother-in-law’s birthday. When they brought around the sampler box for everyone to smell the teas and choose the one they wanted, I was instantly drawn to the one that smelled like a campfire. Lapsang souchong is made of mountain-grown tea leaves from China, smoked over pine needles. It’s basically the tea-drinking equivalent of a peaty scotch, or a cigar. And while the intense flavour meant I could only drink one cup of the tea, my brain instantly went to the idea of cooking with it. Jenny and I did just that last year, preparing fish two ways with lapsang souchong.

And then, of course, I forgot about my smoked tea leaves – until just recently, when I started thinking that lapsang souchong might make for an interesting ingredient in cocktails. I started this by making a simple syrup with a 1:1 ratio of sugar to brewed lapsang souchong tea (instead of the water normally in simple syrup), which I left to cool. In the glass, I muddled a thin sliver of orange rind with three dashes of bitters and 0.5 oz of the simple syrup. To that, I added three ice cubes and 1.5 oz of bourbon.

The end result is decidedly Old Fashioned, but with a distinctive smoked flavour that lingers after the sweet and citrus notes fade. I’m more of a Manhattan guy as brown liquor cocktails go, but I can definitely see adding this to my home bartending repertoire.

Have you used lapsang souchong tea in your cooking or drink mixing?

Eating Raw with Doug McNish + a Giveaway!

22 Apr

Parsnip carrot pesto fettucine

Several factors have prompted me to reconsider how I eat over the past couple of years. The first thing is simple enough: I’m getting older, and if I’m going to continue to eat bacon and foie gras from time to time, I know I need to focus on lighter and healthier meals when I’m not consuming rich foods. Also, I’ve slowly but surely gotten onboard with Jenny’s fascination with vegetarian cooking. And with my sister-in-law embarking on a career as a holistic nutritionist, I’m getting healthy eating info from yet another source.

So when I was sent a copy of Toronto chef Doug McNish’s first cookbook, Eat Raw, Eat Well, my curiosity was piqued. While I can probably count on one hand the number of raw food dishes that I’ve eaten, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the flavours in most of them (If you haven’t had the jicama fries from Belmonte Raw, for example, you’re missing out.)

Raw food, in a nutshell, is vegan in most cases, and focuses on maintaining as many of the nutrients as possible in the ingredients used. That means that most of the dishes are prepared without heat, and those that do use heat are not heated beyond roughly 105 degrees. Given those parameters, someone who has never eaten raw might be excused for thinking that raw food must be boring and limited in flavour. But as I pointed out above, that doesn’t have to be the case, and the 400 recipes in Doug McNish’s book prove that. There is a wide variety of recipes for smoothies, breakfast foods, soups, mains and desserts that incorporate vegetables, herbs, fruit, grains, legumes and nuts to create flavourful and multi-textured meals.

But there are clearly some limitations for those not fully invested in the raw food lifestyle. First, the heated dishes sound interesting, but require a food dehydrator (something my cramped kitchen isn’t equipped with). I can get my oven down as low as 170 F, but only a dehydrator can cook at a controlled 105 degrees, the temperature called for in most of these recipes.

The book also doesn’t include cooking times. The recipe we tried, below, was prep-heavy. And while the 25 minutes or so that I spent preparing “noodles” with a veggie peeler was fairly low-stress work, I’m not sure I would have felt the same way on a Tuesday evening as I did on a Sunday afternoon. With cooking times listed, it would be easier to gauge which recipes one should attempt with the time they have available.

Finally, there’s no nutritional value listed for the recipes in Eat Raw, Eat Well. We were concerned with the amount of protein in the dish we prepared, so we ate it alongside salmon.

That said, this book is definitely staying in my kitchen. I can see myself working more raw meals into my diet, and I do think that a lot of the recipes here would also make for amazing side dishes next to fish or egg dishes.

Want to win a copy of Eat Raw, Eat Well? We have one copy to give away to a reader of Communal Table. Just leave a comment below, letting us know why you want to win this book. We’ll pick a winner from all comments left by next Saturday, April 28, and post the winner’s name here as well as letting them know via email. Good luck!

UPDATE 4/30: Congrats to “Onadistantshore,” who won our draw for a copy of Eat Raw, Eat Well. Enjoy the book!

Carrot parsnip fettucine McNish raw

Doug McNish’s Pesto-Coated Carrot and Parsnip Fettuccine (Makes 2 servings)

When Jenny and I made this, we decided to use just two garlic cloves instead of the three called for below, and in hindsight I think I’d use a bit less hemp seed oil than called for (maybe 2/3 of a cup). But we loved the fresh, vibrant flavour of the dish, and we’ll definitely make it again.

3 large carrots, peeled
3 large parsnips, peeled
1 tbsp (15ml) tbsp cold-pressed (extra virgin) olive oil
1⁄4 cup (60 ml) freshly squeezed lemon juice, divided
1 1⁄2 tbsp (22 ml) fine sea salt, divided
3⁄4 cup (175 ml) cold-pressed hemp oil
1⁄2 cup (125 ml) raw shelled hemp seeds
3 cloves garlic
3 cups (750 ml) chopped fresh cilantro leaves

1. Using a vegetable peeler, peel carrots and parsnips into long, thin strips, dropping into a bowl as completed. Add olive oil, 1 tsp (5 ml) lemon juice and 1⁄4 tsp (1 ml) salt and toss until vegetables are well coated. Set aside for 10 minutes, until softened.

2. In a food processor fitted with the metal blade, process hemp oil and seeds, garlic and remaining lemon juice and salt, until somewhat smooth but the hemp seeds retain some texture. Add cilantro and process until chopped and blended, stopping the motor once to scrape down the sides of the work bowl. Add pesto to fettuccine, toss well and serve.

Excerpted from Eat Raw, Eat Well by Douglas McNish © 2012 www.robertrose.ca Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

Toronto Taste Preview with Chef Chris Zielinski

17 Apr

Chef Chris Zielinski MLSE e11even Toronto

Toronto Taste is coming. On Sunday, May 27, more than 60 of Toronto’s best chefs and 30 wine, beer and other beverage producers will gather at the Royal Ontario Museum to serve Toronto food lovers in support of Second Harvest.

To help draw attention to one of Toronto’s best food events and most important fundraisers, we’re going to be chatting with some of the participating chefs over the next few weeks. Up first is Chris Zielinski, executive chef at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. With MLSE, Chris is part of the team that oversees game day food at the Air Canada Centre and BMO Field, as well as e11even and Real Sports Bar & Grill at Maple Leaf Square.

A big part of your job at MLSE is creating food that can be eaten while walking around or sitting in a seat. What are the keys to doing this successfully?
At the Air Canada Centre and BMO Field, we are constantly charged with reinventing hand-held cuisine. It has been proven over and over that fans prefer to avoid utensils whenever possible. The keys to success for hand-held foods are not at all unlike the keys to any great dish. The combination of quality ingredients, likeable and recognizable flavours and a variety of interesting textures are the true barometer of any great dish. The other very important piece is to practice it over and over and to make sure that you test it out for other people, not just chefs.

What are you planning for Toronto Taste? What are important things for participating chefs to consider in creating successful dishes?
This year, we will be serving up E11even’s famous Nova Scotia lobster roll. I think, after participating in and attending Toronto Taste so many times, the most memorable moments have come in the form of two bites. Guests have a great deal of food to get through and, unlike a restaurant, you don’t want to have someone hand you a plateful of food, no matter how it tasty it might be. Two memorable bites with layered flavours and contrasting textures always wins!

What do you enjoy most about participating in Toronto Taste?
I have participated at least 10 times, and have attended other years. Toronto Taste continues to be Toronto’s premier culinary event.  As exciting as it is to taste all the great food, my favorite part of the event is the sense of community that comes from getting all the chefs under one roof/tent. As most chefs can attest, we rarely step outside our kitchen and communicate with our peers, and stand beside our city’s top restaurant supporters, the customers!

What drives you to participate in Toronto Taste?
It’s hard to imagine our city without the profoundly important work that Second Harvest does day in and day out. We should be proud that our citizens have taken these matters into their own hands to help the people who need it the most. We should never take their work for granted. There will always be a need for this type of program and hunger will always be an issue. As the chef of one of the largest food outlets in our city, I feel that it’s my civic duty and responsibility to not be wasteful. I would hope all chefs would share that sentiment.

How do the tastes and desires of Leafs, Raptors, Toronto Rock and Toronto FC fans differ in terms of gameday food?
Leafs fans are very tried and true. There is a great mix of business and pleasure, and they love their red meat. The Raptors draw a very multicultural crowd that likes to test the nether regions of our menus. They also seem to be more in tune with some of our healthier options. The Rock crowd is all about family fun. If it’s TFC, it has to go great with beer. The Triple Threat says it all; BBQ pulled pork, smoked beef brisket and grilled peameal bacon all peacefully co-existing on one bun!

What was the draw for you in coming to MLSE?
Over the past 25 years working in fine dining restaurants, I had the opportunity to work with and manage people from all walks of life. It has always been my personal challenge to “make all the pieces fit”. Opportunities to execute that on this scale are few and far between. I’ve always been a fan of the teams, so this was a no brainer. After touring many other sporting facilities, I’ve grown to realize that what we do here, doesn’t really exist anywhere else, and it is a true testament to Richard Peddie’s DIY vision and all the ground work laid out by my predecessors, Brad Long and Robert Bartley.

What have been the biggest influences on your cooking?
Having the chance to work with Susur Lee, back in the day, was a truly eye opening experience. His perspective on food offered a completely different construct that you could never learn from a cooking school. It also was a window on Asian food as a whole. I love the simple magic of Japanese food. So many of my most memorable meals have been based around exceptional pieces of raw fish. Really, any meal that was made with love, from Jose Andre’s insane Bazaar in Beverly Hills, to my Italian mother-in-law’s dinner table in Toronto, are inspiring in their own ways. More than anything, I love to eat!

Chef’s Plate at Royal Playa del Carmen Resort, Mexico

12 Apr

Royal Playa del Carmen Chef's Plate

When Jenny and I decide to treat ourselves to a vacation, my obsession with research inevitably kicks in. Whether we’re headed to a big city like Rome or a small town like Picton, Ontario, I’m determined to track down the best food in a place. And while we love travel, we’re not necessarily all-inclusive resort people. In fact, before I met Jenny I’d never been to an AI. But in our first year together, she convinced me to go to a resort in Mexico’s Riviera Maya, and it turned out to be pretty amazing. Of course, the beach was great, and we were lucky to get good weather. But one of the things that impressed me most was how good the food was at the resort we ended up choosing after my endless hours of research (the Valentin Imperial Maya resort). I was expecting mediocre meat, no veggies and a week of stomach issues, and we got the exact opposite.

It was only a couple years later, after more research (and a bad experience at a Punta Cana resort that shall remain unnamed), that I figured out that a lot of Mexican all-inclusive resorts offered dining choices that were generally of a higher quality than in some other countries. And so, when we decided to head back to Mexico for some R&R at an AI this past winter, I was determined to find another great resort with high quality food. We settled on the Royal Playa del Carmen, and it definitely didn’t disappoint. Not only does RPDC have six different restaurants and a coffee shop, but guests also have access to the restaurants at sister resort Gran Porto Real just across the street.

RPDC also has one “exclusive” restaurant for guests staying in oceanfront or higher rooms, called Chef’s Plate, which we were offered the chance to check out. The Chef’s Plate is smaller and more intimate feeling than most large all-inclusive resort restaurants, with an open kitchen that allows diners to see what 28-year-old head chef Felix Dzib May and his team are cooking. The restaurant offers 7 different rotating menus, each focused on a different cuisine: Iberian, Brazilian, Italian, French, Middle Eastern, British and Mexican. The night we had dinner at Chef’s Plate, they were serving the British menu.

Royal Playa del Carmen Chef's Plate Kitchen

Like many molecular gastronomy restaurants, the cohesion here between the main components of the dish and the more science-focused touches was a bit muddied at Chef’s Plate. And some of the elements promised on the menu didn’t actually end up on the plate – a problem we’ve noticed at several otherwise great all-inclusive resort restaurants. But overall, what was served was artfully plated, well-executed and, most importantly, tasted great.

Here’s a look at what we had. We have a general policy of not using flash for restaurant photos – one of the main reasons we don’t do a lot of restaurant reviews on Communal Table. As a result, the first photos are a bit unclear – eventually we gave up and resorted to using our flash in the mostly candle-lit restaurant. RPDC Chef's Plate Ravioli

Course 1: Fried lobster ravioli, served with a light and flavourful tomato consomme and topped lime lime “spheres” that didn’t quite mesh with the rest of the dish.

RPDC Chef's Plate Soup

Course 2:  Cream of leek soup, topped with bacon “powder”. More proof that you really can’t go wrong with bacon.

RPDC Chef's Plate Scallops

Course 3:  Scallops Mousse. To be honest I didn’t really get the connection between the description of this course and what I was actually eating, and I’m not entirely convinced it was the same scallop course promised on the menu. But what we did get was really good. The scallops were nicely cooked, which isn’t always a given in any restaurant.

RPDC Chef's Plate Beef Wellington

Course 4: Beef Wellington. As you can probably tell, this marked the point where we started using the flash on our camera. A wise decision, considering that this was easily the best course of the evening. I loved the presentation of this, along with the fact that the beef was almost perfectly cooked and really tender.

RPDC Chef's Plate Grouper

Course 5: Grouper. Another dish where what was presented didn’t match what was on the menu. But as a take on the classic battered English fish, this was great – really tender fish in a flavourful coating.

RPDC Chef's Plate Dessert

Course 6: Chocolate Souffle. I love souffle, and it’s not something I’d expect to get at an all-inclusive resort restaurant. While this wasn’t the best souffle I’ve ever had, it was certainly moist and chocolatey, and a great end to a surprising and delicious meal.

Ultimately, while I’m not sure I’d pay the extra cost to stay in the room categories that offer access to the Royal Playa del Carmen’s Chef’s Plate (our Oceanview category room was pretty amazing), we loved our meal and the opportunity to get a glimpse at one of the more innovative and high-end dining experiences you’d find at an all-inclusive resort.

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