Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Cold Cucumber Soup with Mint & Yogurt

Light, cool and refreshing summer soups are a delicious way to beat the heat, like this outstanding Chilled Cucumber Soup featuring english cucumbers, spring onions, mint, cumin and cilantro blended with thick Greek yogurt. Although the combination of cucumbers and yogurt is a classic Balkan and Middle Eastern pairing, the inspiration for this soup is Raita, a cool and creamy traditional Indian cucumber-yogurt dish made with yogurt, cumin, cucumber, and mint. Perfect on a hot summer day, this simple and stylish soup is delicious served with a salad at a summer luncheon or as the first course of an elegant dinner.

Cold Cucumber Soup with Mint & Yogurt
Serves 4

1 small English cucumber, washed and seeded
2 tbsp chopped chives or green onion
2 tbsp fresh mint, chopped
1 tsp ground cumin
2 tbsp fresh dill
2 tbsp fresh cilantro, washed and chopped
1 cup whole milk
1/2 cup sour cream
1/2 cup plain Greek yogurt
salt and pepper

Optional garnishes:
yogurt, sliced cucumber or chives

In a food processor or blender, purée the cucumber and fresh herbs with a splash of milk. Then add the remainder of milk and sour cream and blend until smooth. Finally, stir in the yogurt and season with salt and pepper. Chill for at least one hour before serving, and garnish with fresh mint. This soup can be made ahead and keeps well, covered and refrigerated for up to 2 days.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Grilled Tandoori-Style Tiger Prawns

Sitting beneath a star-studded sky on a warm summer evening, what could possibly be better than a platter of Grilled Tandoori Tiger Prawns marinated in a traditional Indian mixture of plain yogurt, Bolst's curry powder, hot chili powder, cumin, grated ginger, cilantro and lemon juice. This tongue-tingling dish makes a sensational appetizer or impressive entrée for serious seafood enthusiasts. More like small lobster tails, these sweet and firm 'super colossal' tiger prawns are so large they're sold at about 4-6 to the pound, although 'colossal' which are 8-12 count do an admirable job too. The key is to buy the largest prawns you can! The yogurt holds the seasonings in place so they grill slowly into a vibrant saffron coloured hue and give off the most intoxicating aroma. A quick and easy recipe for a great outdoor dinner, the marinade can also be used for chicken, lamb, any variety of firm fish like Monkfish, Ling Cod or one of my favourites, paneer cheese. Heaven!

Grilled Tandoori-Style Tiger Prawns
Serves 4

12 super colossal tiger prawns (4-6 per pound)
1 cup plain yogurt, Balkan or Greek style
2 tbsp Bolst's curry powder
1 tsp cumin
1/4 tsp chili powder
1/3 cup cilantro, finely chopped
1 tbsp fresh ginger, finely grated
2 tbsp fresh squeezed lemon juice

Shell and devein the prawns. Leave whole or butterfly them by making a deep lengthwise incision from the tail to the end, being careful not to cut all the way through. Combine all of the ingredients and mix well. Using your hands, thoroughly coat the prawns, then cover and refrigerate to allow the prawns to marinate for at least 2 to 3 hours or even overnight. 

When ready, preheat the barbecue and once hot, place the prawns on the hot grill. Grill for about 2 to 3 minutes per side until the prawns are just cooked through and the colour has changed. Serve immediately with Coriander Mint Chutney or Cucumber Raita.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Grilled Asparagus & Duck Eggs with Pecorino

Each weekend at the St Lawrence Farmer's Market it's possible to buy fresh duck eggs. Slightly larger than a normal chicken egg with a brighter yolk and beautiful robin's egg blue shell, a poached or soft boiled duck egg makes a delicious brunch dish together with grilled asparagus and shaved pecorino cheese. Fast and easy, Grilled Asparagus & Soft Boiled Duck Eggs are also a lower fat vegetarian alternative to Eggs Benedict, and takes full advantage of locally grown Ontario asparagus, so plentiful in the markets these days.

Grilled Asparagus & Soft Boiled Duck Egg with Shaved Pecorino
serves 2

2 bunches fresh asparagus
2 duck eggs
extra virgin olive oil
lemon juice
salt & pepper
shaved pecorino or manchego

Carefully put the duck eggs into boiling water and then turn the heat down to medium high. Boil for 6 or 7 minutes depending on the size of your duck egg. Cut off the woody ends of the asparagus and put into the boiling water with the egg for 2 or 3 minutes.

Preheat your grill to hot and place the blanched asparagus on a sheet, drizzle with olive oil, salt and pepper, roll to coat evenly then put under the grill for a few minutes to brown slightly. Rolling to cook the other side half way through.

After 6 minutes drain the water out of the pan and run the cold tap over the egg in the pan until cool enough to handle. Roll the egg gently on your counter to break the shell and peel the egg.

Transfer the asparagus to a plate with a slotted spoon, drizzle with little more olive oil, squeeze over some lemon juice and place the egg on top. With a knife cut into your egg to reveal the soft centre, season the egg with salt and pepper and then finish off the dish by shaving over some manchego or parmesan. This is a delicious low fat brunch dish.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Bublanina: Czech Bubble Cake

Bublanina is a Czech confection that translates as 'bubble cake' because of the way the batter bubbles up around the fruit as it cooks. The beauty of this cake is its versatility. Similar to a clafouti, it can be made with pretty much any fruits that are in season, providing they're not to soft or wet. Fresh Ontario plums, cherries, strawberries and blueberries would be gorgeous, as would figs, raspberries, nectarines and apricots. Delicious served as a breakfast pastry or fabulous summertime dessert, Bublanina is a glorious way to make the most of Ontario's sweet summer bounty.

Sliced fresh summertime fruit is placed over the batter in a springform pan

Czech Bubble Cake (Bublanina)
serves 8

5/8 cup light muscovado or brown sugar
3 tbsp softened butter
2 large eggs
1 cup plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 cup plain yoghurt
1 tsp orange zest
1 tbsp Grand Marnier
1/2 tsp almond essence or vanilla extract
1/8 tsp of salt
1 cup each of plums, cherries, strawberries and blueberries

crème fraîche, for garnish (optional)

Pre-heat the oven to 350°F.

Mix the butter and sugar together with an electric whisk until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing well in between. Sift in the flour and baking powder, almond essence, orange zest, Grand Marnier and the pinch of salt, then mix well. Finally, add enough yoghurt to create quite a thick dough, almost as thick as bread dough. You want it to support the fruit when you scatter it on top. 

Pour the batter into a greased and lined 9-inch springform cake tin. Prepare the fruit: slice the plums, stone the cherries, halve the strawberries, etc. Press about two thirds of the fruit into the top of the batter. Scatter the rest over the top. Bake for 40 minutes, or until the batter has cooked through and is firm to the touch. Allow to cool a little before dusting with powdered sugar and serving with crème fraîche or just as it is.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Guilt-Free Cauliflower Mash

Low in carbs and high in nutrients, puréed or mashed cauliflower is a delicious substitute for mashed potatoes. I discovered this fabulous guilt-free recipe in the South Beach Diet Cookbook, which is my 'go-to' resource when trying to shed a few unwanted pounds. Wonderfully flavourful in it's own right, Cauliflower Mash is also great used as a silky smooth purée nestled under grilled scallops, sautéed pickerel or any kind of fresh seafood.

The original South Beach Diet Cookbook

When trying to keep on a low fat/low carb diet, it's really great to know a few 'secret' recipes that taste like you're cheating when you're not! This is one of those recipes. It can be tweaked with some chopped chives, crumbled goat cheese or a wee bit more butter or cream, for a more luscious and decadent version of this low fat classic. I've adjusted the recipe a bit from the original South Beach 'Surprise Mashed Potatoes', but only because I prefer to use more natural ingredients than over processed butter sprays and fat-free cream, which the recipe recommends and are generally only available in the U.S. anyway. No matter — this recipe is infinitely better. Enjoy.

Sautéed Pickerel with spinach and mushrooms on a bed of cauliflower purée

Cauliflower Mash
Serves 4

4 cups cauliflower florets
1 oz butter or Olivina
1 oz whole milk or light cream
pinch of salt and freshly ground black or white pepper

Steam the cauliflower until soft. Purée in a food processor, adding the butter and milk to taste. Season with salt and pepper and serve hot.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Classic Creamy Deviled Eggs

Everyone loves Deviled Eggs. They’re the ultimate comfort food. Soft, creamy and delicious, they're way too easy to just pop into your mouth one after the other. Made popular in the 1950's, this kitshy cocktail appetizer was the quintessential party food of the time. Quick, easy and inexpensive, Deviled Eggs are perfect for parties — gone almost as quickly as they're served. Although the classic Deviled Egg recipe is pretty straight forward, it's a blank canvas that can be improvised upon with any number of tasty ingredients. For a more elegant Creamy Deviled Egg, add some crumbled smoked salmon, a pinch of curry powder, a dab of wasabi, or dress them up with a dab of caviar or finely chopped green onions and chives. Sometimes however, pure and simple is the best, so here's a classic version of this timeless favourite. 

Classic Creamy Deviled Eggs
Makes 12 servings

6 eggs, hard cooked and peeled
1/4 cup mayonnaise
2 tsp Dijon mustard
3/4 tsp white wine vinegar
1/8 tsp Maldon salt
fresh ground white pepper
1 tbsp minced chives
Smoked Spanish paprika, for garnish

Place the eggs in a medium saucepan with enough cold water to cover by 1 inch. Bring to a rolling boil. Remove pan from heat; cover, and let stand 13 minutes. Drain, and run eggs under cold water to cool them. Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, mix together mayonnaise, mustard, and vinegar. Then peel the eggs, and halve lengthwise, removing the yolks and leaving the whites intact. 

Transfer the yolks to bowl with the mayonnaise mixture, and season with salt and pepper. Mash with a fork, or food processor, until smooth. Using a teaspoon or a pastry bag fitted with a star tip, generously fill the egg whites. Arrange the eggs on a plate, sprinkle with the smoked paprika and garnish with chopped chives. 

Monday, July 23, 2012

Lebanese Tabbouleh Salad

Healthy, delicious and low carb, Tabbouleh is an Eastern Mediterranean dish that's traditionally enjoyed as part of mezze, or appetizers, eaten before a meal. Originally from the mountains of Syria and Lebanon, tabbouleh is one of the most popular salads in the Middle East, and comes from the Arabic word 'mtabeleh', which means ‘seasoned’, implying that the dish comes alive with the salad's flavourful seasonings. In Lebanon, regional and family recipes vary widely, but the consensus remains the same: if the salad isn't heavy on parsley, it's not tabbouleh. 

Characterized by the colours of the Lebanese flag – green, white and red — tabbouleh is traditionally made with bulgur, ripe tomatoes, zesty parsley and fresh mint, with a simply dressing of olive oil, lemon juice and salt. Low in fat and high in fiber, essential nutrients and complex carbohydrates, tabbouleh's primary ingredient is bulgur, which are wheat kernels that have been steamed, dried and crushed, and are available in various grinds: coarse, medium and fine. Like hummus, baba ghanouj, stuffed grape leaves and other delicious mezze of Arab cuisine, Tabbouleh Salad is firmly entrenched as a popular and healthy addition to North American cuisine.

Lebanese Tabbouleh Salad
Serves 8

1 cup medium bulgar wheat
1 1/2 cups boiling water
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/4 cup olive oil
3 tsp Maldon sea salt
1 cup scallions, with green ends, finely chopped
1 cup mint leaves, finely chopped
1 cup flat leaf Italian parsley (about 1 bunch), finely chopped
1 english cucumber, peeled, seeded, and diced
2 large ripe tomatoes, finely chopped, or 2 cups cherry tomatoes, quartered
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper

Place the bulgar wheat in a large bowl and add boiling water, lemon juice, olive oil, and 1 1/2 teaspoons salt. Stir, then allow to stand for 1 hour at room temperature.

Once the bulgar wheat has absorbed all of the water, add the scallions, mint, parsley, cucumber, tomatoes, remainder of salt and the pepper. Season to taste. Serve at room temperature or chill for at least 1 hour to serve cold.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Warm Mushroom & Prosciutto Salad with Pecorino

An elegant and delicious warm salad of sautéed wild oyster, shiitake and cremini mushrooms on a bed of wild arugula and julienned celery hearts is given a decidedly Italian twist with the addition of shaved Pecorino cheese, a fold of Prosciutto di Parma and finished with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and splash of Aceto Balsamico di Modena, the highly prized vinegar from Emilia-Romagna. True balsamic vinegar is made from a reduction of pressed Trebbiano and Lambrusco grapes that's barrel-aged for a minimum of twelve years, resulting in a thick syrup, called mosto cotto in Italian, and can cost between $150 and $400 per bottle.

Aged Balsamic Vinegar from Modena

A lovely birthday gift from an old friend, I splurged and added a splash of his Balsamico di Modena on this wonderful Warm Mushroom & Prosciutto Salad with Pecorino. The salad is all about contrasts: the crisp against the luscious, the warm against the cool, and the nutty salty nature of the cheese against the sweet herbal quality of the shaved celery and peppery arugula. A traditional Italian salad of the utmost simplicity, it's the kind of dish that would be served after a large full meal, somewhere in the hot southern tip of Italy. Perfetto!

Warm Mushroom & Prosciutto Salad with Pecorino 
Serves 8

1/4 cup plus 2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 lb mixed mushrooms: oyster, shiitake, cremini, enoki, cleaned and sliced
Maldon salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tsp aged balsamic vinegar, to taste
4 inner celery ribs, shaved paper thin using a mandoline

1/4 cup celery leaves, for garnish
8 cups wild arugula
6 oz Pecorino cheese, shaved with a vegetable peeler (1 1/2 cups)
6 oz thinly sliced Prosciutto di Parma

In a large non-stick skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Add the chopped mushrooms and season with salt and pepper. Cook over moderately high heat, stirring occasionally, until tender and lightly browned, about 5-6 minutes. Transfer the mushrooms to a bowl and let cool.

In a large bowl, whisk the vinegar with the remaining 1/4 cup of olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Add the shaved celery, wild arugula, sautéed mushrooms and toss gently. Transfer the salad to a large platter or individual serving plates, top with some shaved Pecorino, a fold of prosciutto and garnish with a few celery leaves and some fresh ground black pepper.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Sicilian Fennel & Orange Salad with Olives

According to Greek mythology, Prometheus stole fire from the gods on Mount Olympus and carried it to earth in a fennel stalk. The aromatic bulb has been a key player in Mediterranean cookery ever since. Fennel is a favourite winter vegetable in Rome, cooked or raw, but the addition of orange, recognized throughout Italy as fennel’s natural partner, is of Sicilian origin. The small brown-purple olives named for Gaeta, a picturesque port town in southern Lazio, are favourites in the capital for cooking and eating.

Simple and delicious, this vibrant Fennel & Orange Salad displays all the beauty of Sicilian regional cuisine: bright colors, exotic flavours, and an unwavering appreciation for quality ingredients: 
savoury black olives, segments of sweet juicy orange and crisp, licorice-flavoured fennel, thin slices of red onion and fresh mint, blended with a divine orange vinaigrette. Refreshing offered at the beginning of the meal, or as an antipasto, Insalata di Finocchio e Arancia is also excellent served along side Grilled Fresh Sardines with Lemon & Herbs.

Fennel & Orange Salad with Olives
Serves 4

1/2 small red onion
2 large oranges
1 large fennel bulb with fronds
12 dry-cured black olives, pitted and coarsely chopped
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 1/2 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp minced fresh mint

Cut the red onion into very thin slices. Place in a bowl of cold water & chill for 15 minutes. This helps mellow the flavour.

Cut the ends off of the oranges. Sit the orange on one end & using a sharp knife, cut along the contour of the orange, removing the peel & pith. Working over a bowl, to collect the juice, cut the segments out of the oranges, removing any seeds. Place the segments in the bowl with the juice and squeeze any remaining juice from the cores.

Next, cut the fennel bulb in quarters lengthwise. Trim most of the core away from each section, leaving a portion in place to help hold the slices together. Using a sharp knife or mandoline, thinly slice the fennel bulbs into delicate thin pieces. Finely dice some of the fennel fronds and set aside. Drain the red onion.

To make the dressing, whisk the olive oil, lemon juice and kosher salt in a mixing bowl until emulsified.

Transfer the fennel and red onion to a serving platter. Arrange the orange slices on top and pour the orange juice over the salad. Scatter the olives and mint on top and drizzle the whole salad with the dressing, and garnish with fennel fronds. The salad can be made ahead of time, adding the dressing and mint just before serving with Grilled Sardines.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Fava Bean Bruschetta with Burrata & Prosciutto

The fava bean is the star here, highlighted with the bright flavours of fresh mint, tart lemon and tangy pecorino cheese with crispy prosciutto and creamy burrata 
slathered on grilled slices of sourdough bread, rounding out the cast. Be sure to buy fresh favas in the pod rather than the pre-shelled frozen variety, and surrender to peaceful and pleasurable pastime of shucking. It's more time consuming, but the fava's fresh nutty flavour is well worth it. Simple and delicious, this fresh and creamy Fava Bruschetta with Burrata & Prosciutto is a feast for the eyes as well as the palate.

Fresh fava beans out of the pod

Fava Bean, Burrata & Prosciutto Bruschetta
Makes 8 appetizer crostini

1 1/2 lb fresh, unshelled fava beans
1/4 cup fresh mint leaves, chopped
juice of 1 lemon
1/4 cup freshly grated Pecorino
4 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
Maldon salt and fresh cracked black pepper
1/2 baguette, sliced 1-inch thick on a diagonal
1 garlic clove, peeled and halved
1/2 lb burrata or buffalo mozarella, cut into 8 slices
4 thin slices of prosciutto
pinch of red pepper flakes

Bring a medium pot of water to a boil and salt it generously. Remove the fava beans from the pods. Briefly blanch the beans until tender, about 3-5 minutes, then using a slotted spoon, drain and transfer the beans to a bowl of ice water to cool. Once cool, pop the beans out of the waxy casing by pinching one end of the bean and popping the bean out of the skin. The two halves of the bean will separate. Discard the skins. Rinse them in cool water and dry on paper towels.

In a food processor, combine the fava beans with the mint leaves, lemon juice, pecorino, and salt and pepper to taste. Purée until combined, then slowly add the olive oil until the mixture is smooth and creamy but still quite thick. The purée can be refrigerated at this stage for up to 2 days.

Preheat the oven to 400°F. Place a piece of parchment paper on a baking sheet and lay the slices of prosciutto in one layer. Bake until crisp, about 10 minutes. Crack into small pieces and set aside. Place the slices of bread on the baking sheet or outdoor grill, and toast until lightly browned, about 8 minutes. Remove them from the oven and then lightly rub with the cut clove of garlic.

To assemble the bruschetta, spread a heaping tablespoon of the purée over each slice of bread. Top with a slice of burrata, or buffalo mozzarella, and a few slivers of crispy prosciutto. Sprinkle some hot red pepper flakes and sea salt overtop, and finish with a drizzle of olive oil.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Onion & Spinach Pakoras

These crisp and golden brown Onion & Spinach Pakoras are a delicious savoury start to any Indian-themed dinner party. 
They look fabulous and taste even better. A very popular Indian appetizer, especially in the North, Pakoras are often bought from street vendors who serve them steaming hot wrapped in a newpaper cone. Crisp and golden brown on the outside with a soft fragrant interior of finely chopped spinach, onions, fresh grated ginger, green chillies and an intoxicating combination of aromatic spices, the pakoras are blended together in a fine chickpea flour batter and flash fried at the last minute for an easy and outrageously delicious appetizer fit for a Maharajah.

Onion & Spinach Pakoras
Makes 12-16 pakoras

1 cup fresh spinach
1 cup chickpea flour
1 medium size onion, finely chopped
1-inch ginger, finely grated
1 green chili, seeded and finely chopped
1 tsp ground fennel seed
1/4 tsp red chili powder
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp ground coriander 
1 tsp cumin 
a pinch of asafoetida
2 tbsp sesame seeds
1/4 tsp baking powder
1/2 cup ice cold water, and more if necessary
salt to taste
oil for deep frying

Remove the stems from the spinach. Wash, dry and finely chop. Add all the onion, ginger, green chili and all of the spices to the flour and mix well. Add 1/2 cup of ice cold water to make a fluffy smooth batter. Sprinkle the baking powder over this paste and mix lightly. Set aside for 15- 20 minutes. Heat oil for deep frying, until a drop of pakora mixture instantly floats to the top. Don’t let the oil smoke.

Drop teaspoon-sized amounts of pakora mix into the oil until the surface is covered. Using a teaspoon gives a dumpling shape to the pakora, whereas dropping the dough from your fingers gives a more delicate, interesting shape. Stir and turn the pakora until they are lightly golden brown on all sides, about 4-5 minutes. Drain on paper towels and serve warm.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Tandoori Grilled Monkfish

A large, bottom-dwelling fish found in the coastal waters of the Atlantic Ocean, Monkfish is low in calories, fat and carbs, and a good source of lean protein. When compared to other sources of protein such as beef or poultry, monkfish is significantly lower in calories. The edible portions of this fish are the liver and tail. Although the liver is often used in Japanese cuisine, tail meat is by far the more popular choice for western palates for it's firm and meaty texture. Monkfish is often compared to lobster tail and is often referrred to as 'poor man's lobster'. This vibrant saffron hued Tandoori Monkfish recipe is a delicious summer dish enjoyed year-round in India as bite-size appetizers with drinks. Simple and satisfying, this wonderfully aromatic and flavourful grilled Tandoori Monkfish can be served to as part of any Indian-inspired meal with Coriander Mint Chutney and Aloo Gobi.

Tandoori monkfish
Serves 4

1 1/2 lb monkfish tail, cut into 1 1/2-inch cubes
2 tbsp melted butter or ghee

For the marinade:
1 tbsp gram flour
4 tbsp Greek yogurt
1 tsp lemon juice
1/2 tsp each turmeric, cumin, ground coriander, chilli powder and paprika
2 tsp ginger paste
1 tbsp garlic paste
1 tsp garam masala
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 egg
salt, to taste

lemon wedges, for garnish

Mix together all of the ingredients for the marinade. Rub well into the fish and leave to marinate in a non-metallic bowl in the fridge for a few hours. Bring back to room temperature before cooking.

Preheat an outdoor BBQ. Place the fish and lemon wedges  on the grill and cook for 10-15 minutes, basting once or twice with the butter, until the fish is golden brown and cooked through. Serve with coriander mint chutney.

Coriander Mint Chutney
Makes 1 cup

1 bunch fresh coriander, washed leaves only
1 bunch fresh mint, washed leaves only
10-15 green chilies
6 garlic cloves
2-inch piece ginger root
1/2 tsp cumin powder
2 tsp fresh lemon juice
2 tsp salt
3-4 tbsp plain yoghurt

Using a sharp knife, slice open each green chili pod and discard seeds, then chop the pods. Put all the ingredients, except the yoghurt, in a food processor. Blend until smooth, pushing down if necessary, with a rubber spatula. Once combined, add the yoghurt. Taste and adjust the seasoning according to your taste. Wimps may want more yoghurt. Cover and refrigerate.

COOK'S NOTE: Use disposable food preparation gloves, or rubber gloves, when slicing the chilies to avoid any skin irritation and burning eyes!

Friday, July 13, 2012

Sicilian Caponata à la Dorothea

A delicious Mediterranean aubergine stew from southern Italy, Caponata is a classic Sicilian dish that can be enjoyed as a warm vegetable side dish or as a cold antipasto. A dense condiment of chunky fried eggplant and other fresh vegetables and seasonings, Caponata is jam-packed with flavour — sweet, sour, salty all at once. Using a vibrant mixture of fresh produce from the island, the dish traditionally includes eggplant, onion, celery, tomatoes, olives, capers and basil.

And this is exactly what Caponata is about: a truly Sicilian combination that brings together the island’s abundance of local vegetables that grow all over the island, to produce an explosion of sweet and sour flavours that just make you want to eat more and more of it. In every restaurant and every kitchen, you'll find a different version and an opinion. The truth is, Caponata is made with whatever vegetables are available depending on the season, but the principle is always the same: the vegetables are fried, each one separately, to retain the integrity of each flavour, then combined in a sweet and sour sauce.

My good friend Dorothea is an excellent cook and created this beautiful dish for us earlier this week. Artfully presented and full of fresh summer flavours, she served her Caponata as a small stack topped with a generous slice of Buffalo Mozzarella and finished with a drizzle of top quality aged Balsamic vinegar, a fresh basil leaf and warm slice of grilled bruschetta. Divine.

Sicilian Caponata
Serves 4

4 medium aubergines, chopped into 1/2-inch cubes
salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 small yellow onion, chopped

2 anchovy filets, chopped
2 celery sticks, thinly sliced crosswise
5 large ripe tomatoes, roughly chopped
4 oz green olives such as Cerignola, pitted and coarsely chopped
3 tbsp capers, rinsed, drained and chopped
2 tbsp red wine vinegar
1 tbsp sugar, or to taste
2 tbsp coarsely chopped fresh basil, plus whole leaves for garnish
4 slices of Buffalo Mozzarella
Aged Balsamic Vinegar, for drizzling

Sprinkle the aubergines with salt and leave to drain in a colander for 30-60 minutes. Then rinse eggplant and pat dry with paper towels.

Heat some of the olive oil in a saucepan and brown the aubergine over medium-high heat for 10 minutes. When cooked, using a slotted spoon, transfer the eggplant to a bowl and allow to cool to room temperature.

Reduce the heat to medium and add the remaining olive oil, onions and anchovies, and cook until soft about 12-15 minutes. Add the tomatoes and celery and cook until the tomatoes release their juices, about 5–6 minutes. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Add the olives and cook for 20 minutes. Add the cooled aubergine and the capers.

In a separate bowl, mix together the red wine vinegar and sugar. Add this to the pan and cook for 10 minutes. It's ready when the red wine vinegar has been absorbed. Transfer to a large bowl, mix well and set aside and let cool slightly. Add the chopped basil.

To serve, form the caponata into short stacks, top with a slice of Bufallo Mozzarella and drizzle with aged balsamic vinegar. Top with a basil leaf and a slice of grilled bruschetta on the side. Serve at room temperature.

Simple Bruschetta

4 slices baguette, cut on a diagonal
1 clove garlic
extra-virgin olive oil

Slice the bread and grill in the oven until slightly brown. Cut the garlic clove in half and rub the bread immediately with the cut garlic clove then brush with olive oil. Serve with the caponata.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Cold Asparagus Soup

Inspired by a Cold Asparagus Soup we were served as an amuse-bouche when we dined recently at The Charles Inn in Niagara-on-the-Lake, this light, creamy and delicious appetizer 'shooter' is the perfect way to start any summer meal. The intense flavour and vibrant green hue of fresh Ontario asparagus and fragrant leeks smells heavenly as they're sautéed in butter then simmered in an aromatic broth until tender. The soup is then puréed in a blender until it's silky smooth, then passed through a sieve for a more refined texture. Thick crème fraîche or heavy cream is then added to the soup, creating a delightfully rich and satisfying appetizer that can be showcased in tall shot glasses or small demi-tasse cups, garnished with a swirl of crème fraîche as a final flourish.

Cold Asparagus Soup (Crème d'asperges)
Serves 8 as amuse-bouche

2 pounds green asparagus, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 large leeks, white part only, sliced
3 tbsp unsalted butter
5 to 6 cups chicken or vegetable broth
1/2 cup crème fraîche or heavy cream
1/4 tsp fresh lemon juice, or to taste

Cook the leeks in 2 tablespoons butter in a heavy pot over moderately low heat, stirring until softened. Add the asparagus, salt and pepper to taste, and cook stirring for 5 minutes. Add 5 cups broth and simmer, covered, until asparagus is very tender, about 15 to 20 minutes.

Purée the soup in a blender, in batches until smooth, then return to the pan using a sieve, to ensure all solids are removed. Stir in the crème fraîche, adding more broth to thin soup if desired. Season with salt and pepper. Bring the soup to a boil and whisk in remaining tablespoon of butter. To serve, pour the soup into small cups or shooter glasses, garnishing with the lemon juice and a swirl of crème fraîche or heavy cream. The soup can be made ahead and keeps, covered and chilled, for up to 2 days. 

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Classic French Vichyssoise

A classic cold summer soup, Vichyssoise thickened with fresh cream and chives is one of the ultimate dishes on a hot summer day. Traditionally served chilled, thick and creamy Leek and Potato Soup is just as delicious served steaming hot during the winter in front of a roaring fire. Made with puréed leeks, potatoes, cream, and chicken stock, the origins of Vichyssoise are still a subject of debate among culinary historians.

Louis Diat

Louis Diat's cookbook, published in 1946

Julia Child

Julia Child's The Way To Cook

Although Julia Child called it an American invention, Louis Diat, a chef at the Ritz-Carlton in New York City, is most often credited with its invention. Diat told New Yorker Magazine in 1950 that in the summer of 1917, when he had been at the Ritz for seven years, he reflected on the Potato and Leek Soup which his mother and grandmother used to make. Seeking to invent some 'new and startling cold soup' for the menu at the Ritz-Carlton, he recalled his mother's soup, and began experimenting with a combination of leeks, onions, potatoes, butter, milk, cream and other seasonings. The soup was first titled Crème Vichyssoise Glacée, named after Vichy, a town not far from his home town of Montmarault, France.

Louis Diat's Crème Vichyssoise Glacée
Serves 8

Recipe courtesy of Gourmet Magazine Archives

4 leeks, dark green tops discarded
1 onion, chopped
1 tbsp unsalted butter
2 russet baking potatoes, peeled, diced, about 3 cups
2 tsp salt
2 cups milk
2 cups half-and-half
1 cup heavy cream
White pepper to taste
Fresh chives for garnish

Split the leeks lengthwise, wash them well, and chop them coarse. You should have about 2 1/2 cups. In a kettle, cook leeks and onions in butter, covered, over low heat, stirring occasionally, until they are softened. Add potatoes, with 4 cups water and salt. Simmer mixture, covered, 30 to 40 minutes or until potatoes are soft. Add milk and half-and-half and bring mixture just to a boil, stirring.

In a blender purée the mixture in batches and strain it through a very fine sieve into a bowl. Stir the cream and white pepper into the soup and chill it, covered, until very cold. Garnish with finely sliced fresh chives.

Julia Child's Vichyssoise
Serves 6-8

6-7 cups cold water
4 cups leeks, white portion only, sliced
4 cups peeled baking potatoes, diced
1 1/2 to 2 tsp salt, to taste
1/2 cup heavy cream, sour cream or crème fraîche
1 tbsp minced chives or parsley
nasturtiums for garnish, optional (my addition)

Bring the leeks, potatoes, and water to the boil in a large saucepan. Salt lightly, cover partially, and simmer 20 to 30 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender. Purée the soup if you wish. Taste, and correct seasoning. After chilling the soup, you may wish to stir in a little sour cream, heavy cream or crème fraîche. Taste carefully again, and correct the seasoning. Top each serving with a sprinkle of chives or parsley, and some edible flowers such as nasturtiums if you wish.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Biff's Bistro: Traditional French Classics with Chef Ray

Warm, friendly and casual, Oliver & Bonacini's French-inspired restaurant, Biff's Bistro at 4 Front Street East in downtown Toronto, is styled on belle époque Paris, with framed 19th-century French posters, waiters in starched white aprons and traditional bistro fare such as boeuf bourguignon, steak frites, duck confit and moules et frites. Taking full advantage of the neighbouring St. Lawrence Market, Biff's seasonally inspired menu includes an outstanding selection of market fresh seafood, traditional bistro classics as well as Biff's evolving Selection de Fromages.

The Parisian charm of Biff's outdoor terrace, perfect for lazy summer lunches

In the warm summer months, guests arrive early to grab a table under the generous awnings to savour the Parisian charm of Biff Bistro's long street side terrace. The inside Bar also buzzes at lunchtime and after work, when seafood fans clamour around Biff's zinc-lined Wine Bar for $1-oysters on the half shell, which are featured after 5pm each and every evening.

$1 oysters at Biff's Bar each night after 5pm

New to Biff's is Chef Amanda Ray, who joined O&B in 2001 after graduating from the Chef School at George Brown College. Beginning at Auberge du Pommier under Chef Jason Bangerter (currently chef at Luma), Amanda then transferred to Canoe in 2005. One year later she was sent on stagiere to the south of France to work at Crillon le Brave, a gorgeous Relais & Chateaux hill town property in the heart of Provence. After her apprenticeship, Chef Ray returned to Canoe and worked her way through every station in the kitchen until being promoted to Sous Chef in 2008. After eleven years with O&B, Chef Ray was recently appointed Chef de Cuisine at Biff's Bistro just three months ago, in April 2012. Talented, charming and bursting with personality, Amanda already appears to be as popular with her staff as she is with her clientele.

Biff's new Chef de Cuisine Amanda Ray

Arriving at Biff's for lunch on the outdoor terrace during the summer months usually means arriving at noon, or shortly thereafter, in order to secure one of the limited number of bistro tables that sit protected under the great yellow awning, which spans the width of the restaurant, and casts an unusual yellow glow over the food. In addition to Biff's traditional french classics, the menu features daily specials such as a Soupe de Jour, which was Chilled Gazpacho the day we visited, as well as the daily pasta special, a homemade Tagliatelle with Mussels.

Biff's Menu

Starters include traditional French dishes as Warm Octopus Salad with escarole, black olives, roasted fingerling potatoes and crispy capers, Grilled Sardines with haricots vert, sautéed red onion and cherry tomatoes on a bed of escarole, or Steak Tartar, which can also be served as a main course with frites. Another luncheon category of Les Oeufs featured La Crêpe Madam with country ham, gruyère and a sunny side up hen’s egg. Biff's also features a daily Prix Fixe which included the day we dined, Chilled Gazpacho followed by a Roasted Tomato and Goat Cheese Tart. The perfect end to a leisurely summer meal is a napkin wrapped basket of Biff's à la minute Baked Madeleines, which arrive warm of the oven, with a fragrant scent of butter and cardamom.

Warm Octopus salad with escarole, black olives, roasted fingerling potatoes 
and crispy capers

Biff's Soupe de Jour — Chilled Gazpacho

La Crêpe Madam with country ham, gruyère and sunny side up hen’s egg

Roasted Tomato and Goat Cheese Tart on Arugula

Biff's Pasta-of-the-day, Tagliatelle with Mussels

Grilled Sardines with Haricots Vert, Red Onion and Cherry Tomatoes on Escarole

Biff's warm Madeleines, baked-to-order hot from the oven

Starting the day after we visited, Biff's was starting their annual Summerlicious menu which runs from July 6 through to July 22, with a $20 three course luncheon, and $35 three course dinner menu. A great way to sample a multitude of fabulous restaurants in the city you've always wanted to try, Summerlicious offers great food at affordable prix-fixe pricing. The only catch is that you must start making your reservations now! 

Here are Toronto Life's 'Top 10' Summerlicious picks: 

Biff's Famous Mushroom Soup
Serves 4

Biff's famous Mushroom Soup made without butter or cream, just excellent rich earthy flavour. 

1 tbsp olive oil
1/2 cup chopped yellow onions
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 sprig of thyme, leaves only chopped
6 cups diced assorted mushrooms, such as shiitake, oyster and king oyster
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
4 cups water
1 bay leaf

Optional garnishes:
Truffle oil
1 tbsp chopped chives
Trimmed enoki mushrooms
Plain yogurt

In large saucepan, heat olive oil over medium. Add onions, garlic and thyme. Cook, stirring, 6 minutes, to soften, reducing heat if onions start to brown. Add mushrooms in 4 batches, seasoning each layer with salt and pepper and stirring constantly. (This allows each batch to cook down slowly.) Add water and bay leaf. Raise heat to high; bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium. Simmer 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Discard bay leaf. For coarse soup, purée using hand-held immersion blender. For creamy soup, purée in blender.

Return to pot over medium heat. Taste; adjust salt and pepper if needed. Serve immediately, or refrigerate overnight to let flavours develop.

If desired, top each serving with a drizzle of truffle oil, sprinkling of chives, several enokis and a dollop of yogurt.

CHEF'S NOTE: By adding a half cup of 35% cream and tsp of butter, makes this soup rich, creamy and velvety smooth and can also be used as a sauce to accompany chicken, or grilled salmon.