Tag Archives: seafood

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.”

Food Find: Portuguese Style Calamary Stew

29 Jun

Neil and I absolutely love shopping at Fiesta Farms in Toronto. It’s a bit like our foodie Disneyworld. The place is filled with amazing ‘food finds’, so it’s fitting to write my first Food Find post about a product we discovered on our last trip there.

The variety of interesting ethnic foods at Fiesta Farms is amazing. Never would have I imagined that the canned fish section would be so appealing. Actually, when Neil spotted his first tin of ‘Calamary’ stew I think I scoffed at the thought and told him to put it back. But the adventurous food-lover in him pressed on and I’m so happy he made us buy some because it’s delicious and adds so much to a quick and easy pasta!

We’ve tried two different kinds now, and particularly enjoyed this one. Your initial gut reaction might be “Ew, gross!” but if you’re into food, try it out and you’ll probably be as pleasantly surprised as I was.

Here’s a really quick pasta dish we threw together tonight that impressed us both.

Linguine with Portuguese ‘Calamary’, Lentils and Garlic Scapes.

2 garlic scapes, chopped (or 1 garlic clove)

1/2 can of lentils

1 tin of Portuguese style ‘calamary stew’

Frozen spinach, thawed and drained

White wine

A few fresh basil leaves, chopped

Fresh parsley, chopped

Crushed chili flakes (a few pinches)


Sautee the garlic scapes and chili flakes in a bit of olive oil. Add the ‘calamary’ with a bit of the oil/sauce from the tin and sauté. Add in a few splashes of white wine and let it cook off for a few minutes. Add the lentils with some of the lentil liquid, then add the spinach. Let it all amalgamate for a few minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste and you can add a bit of water to make it saucy.

Mix in cook pasta (we used linguine) and season again with salt and pepper to taste. Plate the pasta and add a good amount of freshly chopped parsley and a drizzle of good olive oil to finish.

Scallops and ramps

22 Apr

It’s been a while since we’ve posted anything here. I could blame writer’s block for zapping the ability to communicate. Instead, I’ll blame the wife… with an explanation, of course (so I don’t have to sleep on the couch tonight!) She’s a TV producer and has been on a shoot the past couple of weeks that has kept her working for up to 18 hours a day, leaving me alone for dinners. Since I tend to order in more and cook less when I’m forced into the bachelor lifestyle, opportunities to post our culinary adventures will naturally drop.

Fortunately, the crazy shoot is now done and we’re back to a normal-ish schedule. To celebrate this and, more importantly, mark our six-month wedding anniversary, I decided a good meal was finally in order. Inspiration hit after a trip to St. Lawrence Market. We needed something fresh. Something rejuvenating. Something spring. Seared fennel-dusted scallops on roasted carrot puree with sautéed ramps and baby bok choy.

I’ve seared scallops several times and am finally getting the hang of it, and pureeing veggies is child’s play (Note: don’t let your child play with the blender). But this was my first experience with cooking ramps, also known as wild leeks for their similar flavour to regular leeks (those ramps are a little more reminiscent of garlic and onions). They’re revered by chefs and foodies not only for their taste, but also for their relative scarcity – ramps are one of the first edibles to emerge from the ground in the spring, but have a growing season that can last mere weeks.

Ramps are also, I discovered, a pain in the ass to clean. You have to pull off the roots, soak them in water, remove the papery “skin” that covers each stalk. But once they’re clean, the whole thing – bulb and leaf – is edible and full of amazing flavour. While the whole meal turned out great, we both became devout ramp fans.

Read on for the recipe (serves two).

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