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Verses from my Kitchen: August 2010

August 31, 2010

The life left behind

Most of us are fortunate that we don't have any restrictions on what we can eat and drink. We're free to order anything off a menu, grab whatever we like at the grocery store and eat without limitations when we're out. Not everybody has that option these days. Some people are restricted to eat Lactose-intolerant, Kosher, Diabetic, Macrobiotic and Gluten-free diets.

The days of assuming we all eat meat and potatoes are gone. Once obscure food choices are now mainstream and prevalent. Some people have food sensitivities and others special diets due to medical and food allergies, religious practices and diseases. One of my neighbours has a special diet due to Celiac disease or gluten intolerance. 

Celiac disease is caused by the inability of the human body to absorb nutrients. It is more common than I believed with recent statistics showing 1 in 133 people in this country suffering from it. Although there is no cure at the moment it is managed with a gluten-free diet. Basically, a necessity to avoid wheat, rye, oats and barley. Many food staples are obviously affected but there are many you wouldn't think about it, like licorice, vinegar, cold cuts, and many soups and stocks. The things we take for granted like pizza, pasta, breads and cakes are off-limits. 

These are a couple gluten-free meal options, all fantastic alternatives. No matter what food restriction you have remember that it can still have loads of flavour.

Pasta Primavera (Gluten-free)

1/4 c. olive oil 

2 c. sliced Portabello mushrooms                                                                                                                          1 white onion, sliced                                                                                                                                       1 red pepper, sliced                                                                                                                                       Salt and cracked pepper                                                                                                                               1/4 c. basil leaves, torn                                                                                                                                  2 tbsp. chopped garlic                                                                                                                                 1/2 c. chopped sun dried tomatoes                                                                                                                  1 lb. gluten-free pasta, cooked to al dente and drained                                                                                      2 c. your favorite marinara sauce 

                                                                                                                                                              Method: Using a large sauté pan over med-high heat, add the olive oil. When the onions soften add the portobellos, onions, red peppers and cook until oil is absorbed and the vegetables begin to wilt and soften, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Throw in the fresh basil leaves, garlic and sundried tomatoes and stir to coat and combine. Toss with the gluten-free pasta and marinara sauce. Garnish with the grated Parmesan. Serve.

Asparagus Risotto (Gluten-free)

A handful of fresh asparagus- approx. 16 to 20 spears
4 c. fresh hot water 
2-3 tsp. olive oil
1 cup raw organic Arborio rice
1/2 c. white wine
Kosher salt, to taste
2 tbsp. fresh chopped Italian parsley

First, break the asparagus from the bottom. Then wash and slice the asparagus, cutting on the bias (diagonal) every 2-3 inches down from the tip. Splash some water into a skillet and quickly blanch the asparagus and when it turns bright green, remove them. Rinse with very cold water to stop the cooking process. You want the asparagus to still have a touch of crispness.

Making the risotto requires constant attention. Heat the water in a separate sauce pan, and keep it warm.
In a heavy saucepan, heat the olive oil on medium heat and add the uncooked Arborio rice and stir well, until the rice is coated. Stir and cook for about 3-5 minutes. Add the white wine and continue stirring until most of the wine is cooked off. Add 1 cup of the hot water and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat and simmer uncovered, stirring often for 7-8 minutes. When most of the liquid is absorbed, add the remaining cups of hot water 1 cup at a time, stirring and simmering until each cup of the liquid is absorbed before adding the next one. 

The entire process should take about 20-25 minutes. Roughly 22 minutes reaches al dente. If you cook the risotto longer you'll end up with a dish that's too soft and gooey.

When the final cup of liquid is absorbed gently add in the blanched asparagus, cover and set aside for a few moments before serving, allowing the asparagus to rest.

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August 30, 2010

Everything's Peachy

One of my favourite things to do is explore and support the Ontario culinary events this great province has to offer. Festivals, chef dinners, farmers markets, and tastings. The growers and producers who richly deserve the recognition they get and and the chefs who, in turn, support those same people to produce some of the great food offerings in your local area. Basically, anywhere that you can eat, shop and play that highlight the best in local, regional food.

August is famous for many things including the last great month of hot weather and the fruits and vegetables that are produced locally and in abundance. Peaches, coming from local producers this time of year, is one of the many joys and rights of passage for food lovers. When I discovered a Peach Festival was within a short commute, I couldn't think of a better way to spend a Sunday with my wife and her family. 

The Winona Peach Festival was established in 1967. It has grown in size and stature since those days with an expected 125, 000 to 150,000 visitors expected this past weekend. The festival has a wide range of events to keep everybody happy, from arts and crafts vendors to classic cars and midway rides to a full range of food options. Shopping for the adults, rides and games for the kids. And peaches.

Make no mistake about it, the star attraction was peaches, and the peaches of 2010 are among the sweetest and juiciest on record. There were peaches being sold by the small 1L box to the 7L carton and stations where peaches were being made in crepes, milkshakes, pies, juice and sundaes.  It is the sundaes that steal this show and drive repeat traffic. Made fresh with Stoney Creek Dairy vanilla ice cream and delicious local Ontario peaches produced by the areas farmers, this sundae had it all. Delicious vanilla ice cream with a scent of caramel within, soft ripe peach slices and topped with fresh whipped cream. Three ingredients that tasted like six or seven. A mouthful of heaven.

It is a great way to spend a few hours soaking up the sun, spending time with family and indulging in succulent golden-yellow peaches, the kinds of which we may not see for years to come. It may be a country fair but it has all the ingredients necessary for  people to leave happy. 

My wife and I outside the peach sundae tent.

Famous peach sundaes.

Ontario peaches.
Standing amongst the boxes with my purchase. Cobbler, anyone?

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August 29, 2010

Sunday Morning

There's something especially refreshing about Sunday mornings and breakfast. Waking up without an alarm clock and realizing the weekend is still alive. Taking a peak outside and seeing the streets and neighbourhood asleep. No movement in sight and no sound to be heard except for the birds chirping. That's the beauty of backing on to trails and protected green space. And Sunday mornings.

Today it was about the berries still in season and the fresh brioche loaf I have in the kitchen. It was also about the mangoes and fresh OJ. It was about something simple, but luckily for me simple also means fresh and flavour. Letting the ingredients speak for themselves.

Here are some pictures from our Sunday morning breakfast. The last day of freedom.
Mango-Orange Smoothie with vanilla.

Brioche french toast w/ fresh blueberry sauce. Rosemary home fries.

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Plans Altered, Plans Made.

I love Saturday. Not for the typical reasons but the reasons I find typical. It usually involves a stop at the Market and prep work for dinner. Nothing makes me happier than planning a menu and doing any preparation I can. That almost always includes an aroma sweeping and filling the house. Not a bad day at all. On certain weekends, it also includes company. In some cases family, and in some cases a dinner party. Tonight was going to be a one of those instances. A dinner party for four. Unfortunately, plans are made to be broken.

We had planned to have two friends over for dinner and drinks this evening. The menu was mapped out and the ingredient list was made. I had two stops to make. The Market and the LCBO. Five minutes into the market and after my pork loin was cut, trimmed and packed and the plum tomatoes and small yellow flesh potatoes in my hand, my phone rang. Something had come up and our friends couldn't make it. The easy thing to do would be cut the menu down significantly and have a nice and easy dinner for two. I could even freeze the pork for another night. Why? It was a chance to make new plans. Make my wife a Saturday night dinner and share the experience and evening with her.

I went back inside and finished up with the list. On any other day I could spend an hour at the Market  roaming around and enjoying everything on display. Not today. I hopped across the street to the liquor store for a bottle of chardonnay to go with our pork. And I was home before I knew it laying out the food like show-and-tell. They say when you're handed lemons, make lemonade. I'd rather make lemon meringue pie or lemon-strawberry pudding. So that's exactly what I had in mind. I altered the menu slightly, just enough so that my day could be spent with her and not entirely in the kitchen. And I revelled in the thought of a dinner for two. Just us.

I started by taking care of dessert first. It had the longest amount of time involved but the shortest amount of prep. I quickly pureed the watermelon with sugar and lemon juice and salt and poured it into the 9" square pan I had. Into the freezer for an hour for it to set. Next was taking care of the pork so that when the time came I just had to throw it in the oven. The more organized you are, the easier it is. I grabbed the heavy pot and browned the chopped bacon, added the onion and eventually the garlic. Next was the applesauce and within no time it all it had reduced by half. I stirred in the sage and breadcrumbs and stuffed the pork. I tied it with butcher twine and it went in the fridge.

My wife likes an appetizer on a weekend before dinner. It's a great time to sit with a drink and nosh on something small while the main event is either cooking, simmering or grilling away. It's also a chance for your palette to warm up. So tonight I roasted some plum tomatoes, already marinated briefly with oil, salt, pepper and garlic, for 30 minutes. It was the perfect time needed for the skin to blister and brown. During the last 10 minutes I sliced my baguette on the diagonal into 8 slices and put them in the oven until browned. I took out the tomatoes to cool and grabbed the toast and spread ricotta on them, seasoned them, added prosciutto, the tomatoes, and basil. We sat and ate and talked. And we waited.

It wasn't long until the pork was out of the oven resting in foil and the potatoes were caramelizing in the stove. It wasn't much longer until we were sitting down to our own little dinner party. Wine and food and great company. Truly the only ingredients you need for a great dinner. Luckily for me, I start with one of those every single day.

After dinner was over I had a few minutes of work finishing the dessert. I poured sugar in a small pot, some lemon juice and minced ginger. Set to low, it only took a few minutes for the sugar to fully dissolve. I added the fresh Summer peaches and soaked them in the syrup. The watermelon puree had set up fully at this point so I took it out of the freezer and used my fork to scrape into icy flakes. That's it. Layer the glass with watermelon flakes, peaches and syrup. The perfect summer dessert. The perfect end to our Saturday night.

Below are pictures from our dinner tonight.

Bruschetta with roasted plum tomatoes, ricotta, prosciutto and basil
Apple-bacon stuffed pork loin with sage and onion. Lemon roasted potatoes.
Watermelon granita with peaches and ginger syrup.

August 26, 2010

More Than One Option

As I was driving today I passed the St. Jacobs Market. Very slowly. With my window rolled down I could pick up everything that's great about the Farmer's Market without stopping. I could smell the seasonal goods from a couple hundred metres away. Fresh herbs and produce, baked goods and flowers. You could see the hustle and bustle of the vendors. The customers almost standing still. Nobody wants to rush the experience.

I love to grab whatever I can from the market. When I'm there I'll pick up basil, thyme, rosemary, sage and any other herb that's in season and screaming with aroma. I'll grab locally grown potatoes, carrots, leeks, onions and vegetables that talk to me. The same goes for fruit, sweet and juicy fruit. I will smell, touch and taste anything I can to make sure it's the finest, freshest available. Any and all things I can include with a recipe. From the market to the table. It's that easy.

I only use fresh ingredients whenever possible and I prefer supporting local butchers, farmers and vendors. There is one exception to that rule. Canned Whole Tomatoes. When it comes to making sauces, nothing beats the flavour provided from canned tomatoes. Why? Manufacturers can the best fruit and vegetables whole, then chop, crush or puree the rest.  They are picked at their peak and the ripest, most attractively-coloured tomatoes are used as whole. They are incredibly superior to out-of-season supermarket tomatoes that are picked before fully ripe and bred to survive the long haul to market with minimal damage.

I make my tomato sauce from the whole canned variety and experiment to create the best flavour combinations. Considering how little actual time it takes to make fresh tomato sauce, I never buy store bought sauces anymore. I stock up on canned tomatoes!  You should too, and after I show you how easy it is to make it yourself you may never go back.

I'm including the following recipes tonight.

Chicken Parmigiana & Spaghetti with Tomato Sauce:
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 bay leaves
  • small handful fresh basil
  • 1 can whole tomatoes-drained, hand-crushed
  • 1/4 c. of good red wine (optional)
  • kosher salt and pepper
  • 1 tbsp. sugar
  • 2 skinless, boneless chicken breasts
  • 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
  • 2 large eggs, beaten
  • 2 c. bread crumbs
  • mozzarella cheese, grated
  • parmigiano reggiano
  • 1/2 lb. spaghetti-cooked al dente


1. Place a saute pan over medium heat and add a splash of olive oil.  When the oil gets hot add onions, garlic and bay leaves. Cook and stir, around 5 minutes and until onions are soft and fragrant. Add the wine and cook on med-high heat, scraping the brown bits off the pan, until almost all the liquid evaporates, about 3 minutes. Return to medium heat and add the torn basil. Carefully add the tomatoes and stir and cook until the sauce thickens, about 15 minutes. Season with salt & pepper and sugar, lower heat and cover. Continue simmering.

2. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
3. Put the chicken breasts on a sheet of plastic wrap and cover. Pound chicken with a mallet or the back of a saute pan until about 3/8" thick.  Put flour in a shallow dish and season with salt & pepper and mix it up with your finger. In a wide bowl, combine eggs and 1 tsp. of water and beat vigorously until frothy. Put the bread crumbs on a shallow plate.

4. Heat a splash of oil over med-high heat in a oven-proof saute pan. Dredge both sides of the chicken in the flour and then dip in the egg wash, coating completely. Let the excess wash drip off and then dredge in the bread crumbs. When the oil is hot on the pan, add the chicken and fry for 4 minutes each side, until golden brown.

5. Spoon some of the tomato sauce over the chicken and sprinkle with mozzarella and fresh parmigiano. Bake for 15 minutes, until the cheese is golden brown and bubbly.

6. Serve with spaghetti or pasta of your choice.
7. Finish with fresh torn basil and fresh parmigiano.

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August 24, 2010

Baby It's Cold Outside

The dawn of Fall. I may be entirely too premature but the changes are evident. You can witness it with the growing discontent in the weather. The winds pick up and bite back. The mornings begin with dew and a wake-up call your own alarm clock can't match. The summer foliage are changing colour, albeit slightly. And when you head out you reach for something warm. It's only late-August and I can see the beginning of the end.

Some people want to run and hide and begin their annual hibernation. Others want to grasp it and make friends with it. I, for one, love the Fall. I love it for all the new possibilities and the great flavours that come with it. We get to experience it all. Fall fruits and vegetables.The great root vegetables like carrots, parsnips, and beets. A great flavour addition to roasted meats and stews. Apples and pumpkins and winter squash. It is prime season for garlic, fennel, rosemary, thyme, leeks, onions, mushrooms, sweet potatoes and so many incredible options.

I love nothing more than a reason to stand in the kitchen and cook up something hot and delicious. More than anything else in Fall, I love soups that jump with flavour and aroma. Two-potato bisque, corn chowder, minestrone, root vegetable and apple soup, potato and kale soup, soup of field mushrooms  and my favourite, french onion soup.

Nothing comes to close to satisfying my cold-day cravings like a bowl of onion soup. I don't know if there's a better combination of flavours produced. The perfect amount of sweetness from the vidalia onions, the richness of beef broth, the creaminess of Gruyere and the strong pungency of thyme. Made together it creates a symphony of mouth-watering goodness.

I'm including my version of the French Onion Soup.

The Ultimate Onion Soup:

  • 2 lbs. onions, peeled and sliced
  • 6 fresh thyme sprigs, leaves picked
  • 4 garlic cloves, peeled and finely sliced
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/2 c. unsalted butter
  • olive oil
  • 6 cups beef broth
  • kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 baguette or ciabatta
  • 6 oz. Gruyere, grated

Melt the butter in the thick-bottomed large pot over medium heat. Add the onions, garlic, thyme, bay leaf and salt & pepper and a good drizzle of olive oil. Cook until the onions are soft and caramelized, about 20 minutes. Turn up the heat slightly and colour the onions until a golden colour, continually stirring. This allows for a great depth of flavour. Turn down the heat and add the broth and bring to a simmer for 20 minutes. Season, to taste, with salt & pepper.

Preheat the broiler. Pour the soup in the serving bowls and place on a baking sheet. Tear up a piece of the baguette and put the bread on top of each bowl. Drizzle with some good olive oil and put the grated Gruyere on top. Place the baking sheet in the oven and lightly toast the bread and melt the cheese. Serve with a sprig of thyme on the baguette for garnish.


August 22, 2010

My Family Dinner

Sunday nights are becoming increasingly more meaningful for me. It signifies the last day to spend with the people you love and the last chance to create one more weekend memory. Most of all, Sunday is now a very important food moment in my life. The great family dinner. 

Over time I believe the Sunday family dinner has lost its way. It's been pushed aside by hurried lives, weekend errands and a shorter attention span. We're losing our grip on the last bastion of family routines. But I've decided to push back against the grain and create my own family ritual. And it started last week. And it will continue as long as I have a say in the kitchen. The meal may stay consistent or it may stay varied, but the day will remain the same.

For now my family consists of my wife and myself. No kids, yet. Maybe ever. Maybe someday. But that's good enough reason to create our own memories and spend some time remembering the weekend that was and the week that still isn't.

Today was cool. It wasn't cold, but it was surely cool enough to warrant my mind dreaming of soups, stews and Fall goodies. Whenever the thermometer dips and the clouds open up I automatically think of foods to keep us warm. And I often start craving for mussels. There is something comforting to me about delicious mussels and a hot flavourful broth.

I happened to be in the grocery store today when that craving took over, so I didn't have to go far to quench it. The seafood counter was filled with PEI mussels that looked like they were delivered fresh today. I grabbed a couple dozen and a fresh loaf of carraway rye. While I often turn to a french loaf for mussels, the rye seemed like a perfect fit tonight. I picked up some scallops as well. This was going to be a light meal, but it was going to pop with flavour.

I set out all the necessary ingredients in front of me and chopped and poured. I scrubbed the mussels and removed the mussel beards. Luckily there were no broken shells and all but one were fully closed. I like to switch up the way I make mussels and tonight I felt like making Steamed Mussels with leeks, garlic, shallots, jalapeno, broth and butter. I also made bacon-wrapped scallops with a splash of lemon juice.

The meal was a perfect chance for my wife and I to reminisce about our weekend. We sipped on a glass of wine and took in the blessings of life. Sunday dinner is the perfect chance to talk about life, plans, and your future. To absorb in each other and the food we're lucky to enjoy. And it's the perfect time to start creating our family tradition.

I've included the recipe to our most recent mussels noshing. Enjoy!

Steamed Mussel Recipe:

  • 2 pounds of mussels, beards removed
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3 tbsp. butter
  • 2 leeks, white parts only, chopped finely
  • 1 shallot, finely diced
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/2 jalapeno, seeds removed, diced
  • 1 1/4 cups chicken broth
  • 1/4 cup flat-leaf parsley, for garnish

Rinse the mussels under cold water while scrubbing with a veggie brush. Remove the beards by pulling with your thumb and index finger back and forth as you wash them. Discard mussels with broken shells. If any are open, tap on them to close. If they don't close, discard.

Heat 1 tbsp. of olive oil and 1 tbsp. butter in a large pot over medium heat. When hot, add the leeks, garlic, shallot, and jalapeno and cook until soft, roughly 5 minutes. Add the mussels and give it a good toss to mix all the ingredients. Add the broth and cover the pot to steam over medium-high heat for 10 minutes, until the mussels are opened. Stir once in a while to ensure mussels are in contact with the heat. Add the remaining 2 tbsp. of butter and a drizzle with olive oil to the remaining sauce and allow to incorporate. Season with salt and pepper. Sprinkle parsley over top to garnish.

Meanwhile, heat broiler and place rack 4" from the top. Cut rye into thick slices and broil on baking sheet for 2 minutes. The bread should brown and look crusty. Serve with mussels.

The Dinner Party: Stop Two

Saturday nights. When I think about Saturday nights I think about a dining table, food and company. The one day of the week when we have a little extra time to prepare something special. We can spend an hour at the market finding inspiraton, stop at a local farm for fresh produce, or drop by the butcher for a cut of meat so tender that your mouth will be watering in a few short hours. We turn on music, sometimes jazz sometimes something else, and we start our preparation. This is the beginning of my ritual. My Saturday night rendezvous in the kitchen where I create the perfect storm for my wife.

There is one common factor that binds us all together on weekend evenings. Food. All other aspects may change but that one common denominator remains the same. No matter where we turn, what we do or who we're with we are always surrounded by food. This past Saturday night was no different. But instead of a dinner for two, it was a dinner party for eight. Actually, fourteen.

Let's take this back to the beginning. We started this process a little more than two months ago. While celebrating a birthday with good friends over, what else, food and drinks, we sat around the table talking about making this a routine. A habit. We could do a dinner party circuit with the four couples. Once per month, each couple taking turns. And we went first. But that's history now. And that leads me to Saturday night.

Our friends Kevin and Heather were the hosts this evening. When we arrived we were greeted at the door with a warm smile that was all too familiar at this point. We walked in and everybody was there, getting comfortable, getting acquainted, getting ready.

The evening started out with drinks and appetizers and good conversation. Really good conversation. The food smelled brilliant! And nothing disappointed. The food was fantastic. I know it's a great meal when my palate dances the rest of the evening. And I could go into great detail about everything that was made, and it deserves the time. But there's a deeper significance to the dinner party.

This brings me to a very important point. For a dinner party to be successful it has to have balance. Everything has to play an important role for the evening to go smoothly and successfully. It's like a dance where the food, company, drinks and ambience must move as one. No one thing can make up entirely for another. But we can't lose sight of the obvious either. As important as food is, a dinner party will never stick in our memory banks if the company isn't grand. Which is such a great thing when you're around good friends. We can look forward to a great night out with great food but as long as we have each other we'll know the night will be a success. Always remember, even if the food crashes and burns you can always order in something. Anything. And share a few laughs over a glass of wine with good company.