Sunday, February 26, 2012

Soar My Angel


My love, soul mate and best friend.

Earned his angel wings on January 26th, 2012.

It’s been exactly one month since Sean looked me straight in the eye and said, “I love you” for the last time.

It’s been one long month since I felt him run his fingers through my hair, clutch my hand, laugh heartily at my stupidly funny jokes and embrace me tightly. 

It’s also been one month  that I’ve been unable to step into the kitchen, knowing that my biggest culinary fan and critic and favourite dining companion won’t be savouring anything I cook for the rest of my life.

Tears. Pain. Loss. These words may now be regularly associated with us and our families, but if there is one life lesson that I’ve learned from the love of my life is never to give the situation power. To always make an informed choice based on your wants and not on what is expected by others. And most of all, to smile through every kind of adversity that you’re faced with.

If you knew Sean, you would agree that living life on his terms was a philosophy he lived to the fullest. Today on his one month anniversary, I can safely say that there isn’t a single moment in his 32 years on earth that he regretted. So now when I’m faced with a decision, I always wonder, “What would Sean have done?” An answer usually becomes crystal clear very quickly. I like to think a certain handsome five-foot eleven inch Guardian Angel is speeding along the thought process.

So this decision wasn’t an easy one for me to make. With my main inspiration for Potato Chops and Boneless Chicken having assumed a new role in his eternal life, I’ve decided to put the blog to bed. It was a fantastic, educational journey for us both and we enjoyed sharing it with everyone. Potato Chops and Boneless Chicken will continue to live in memory of Sean, his voracious appetite and his innate ability to enjoy every meal that was put in front of him – no matter how strange or questionable.

I miss my dining partner, sous chef, chief taster and reviewer.

But I know when I step into the kitchen again, Sean will be by my side making sure I'm not going to cut or burn my clumsy self. And as always, he’ll be sitting at the head of our dining table smiling and praying that I’ve added enough salt to my dinner.

Sweet dreams my angel. May your new heavenly companions enjoy every second around the dining table with you. Don't miss me too much. Bon app├ętit! 

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Q & A with chef Paolo Lopriore

Dinner at The Prune, Stratford

I've always maintained that the one thing that excites me about the culinary world is having the opportunity to talk to the players behind the scenes. The passion and  hard work that encompasses the stories that chefs, producers and restauranters share never fails to bring a smile to my face. Luckily for working in the media, you're never too far from getting some words of wisdom from local and visiting talent. This time, I was invited by my friends Mary Luz Meija and Mario Stojanac of Sizzling Communications to talk with chef Paolo Lopriore , one of Italy's hottest chefs and the head chef of Il Canto restaurant, which took the coveted 39th spot on the San Pellegrino's World's 50 Best Restaurant list in 2011.

Although I didn't  personally interview him when he was in town as the Chef in Residence at The Stratford Chefs school, Lopriore answered a few of my questions over e-mail. I have to say his answer about his five ingredients he is never without was extremely unconventional but so reflective of what truly makes good food sublime. I was lucky to taste these words of Lopriore in action as well at a dinner at The Prune restaurant in Stratford. But before you gorge on the amazing pictures of the meal that featured real Tuscan flavours and highlight regional cooking, here are some of the chef's thoughts to get a better picture of his background:

Where do you draw culinary inspiration from?

The tastes from my mother, family and  life experiences is where my inspiration comes from.

Do you have any culinary role models? 
Anna Claudia – my business partner and the patron (the boss) of the hotel where is restaurant is located. She brings a passion and energy to her work at the hotel every day and this spirited work ethic inspires me as I strive to do the same in my work.

How would you define your style of food?
It's Italian. Just Italian. … with my experiences, and experiences from all over the place, which I interpret through the filter of his Italian heritage, all reflected in his style of cooking.

If you invite friends for dinner at your home, what do you like cooking?
The simpler the better. It's about the company, and sharing food and drink together – the social aspect of these times is more important than elaborate cooking. As a chef you spend so much time cut off from the social connection of dinner with people, because it's your job to be doing the food. you are busy and you miss out. When I entertain, I rather serve simple food than have to spend the whole time in the kitchen. And, there's usually more drinking than eating anyway.

Top five ingredients you're never without.
Tradition, t
he product, terroir, the story and love.

Where would you like to travel next to eat? 
Would love to travel to China and learn about their food culture and stories of it.

What advice do you have for young chefs just entering the industry?The main thing is work. Work, work. And also to remember that sometimes the most seemingly simple things can be the most important. The details are often what brings a dish together and makes it work so it's important to take care and mind the details.

Amuse bouche
Egg custard with flying fish roe and dill
This was my favourite course of the night. It was creamy, rich and had just a fain essence of dill in the background, which I though brought a wonderful freshness to the dish. The little bursting orbs of roe added a great textural element.
Served with Ponte Extra Brut Prosecco

First course - Calamari in Zimino
Poached calamari with parsley puree and olives
I loved the presentation of this course. The stark white of the calamari, rich forest green  of the sauce and golden drops of olive oil made it truly art on a plate. The calamari was a tad overcooked but that didn't stop me from polishing the entire plate off.

Served with Feudi di San Gregorio Geodi di Trufo 2010

 Second course - Timballo di melanzane
Eggplant timbale with tomato sauce
My third favourite of the evening. The timbale was light and flavourful, but what really stayed with me was the delicious tomato sauce that complemented it so well. Just a hint of fresh basil in the background made the marriage of the eggplant and tomato perfect.

Served with Feudi di San Gregorio Geodi di Trufo 2010
 Main course - Piccione al vin santo
Oven roasted squab with spinach, pine nuts and raisins and vin santo jus
I would have loved to learn how to make this show stopper. The squab and the vin santo jus together was simply divine with some added crunch from the pine nuts and spinach leaves.
Served with Ca del Doge Chianati
Dessert course - Caco, Amaretto, Mascarpone and Cafee Diventano Tiramisu
Cacao, Amaretto, mascarpone and coffee tiramisuTalk about being a glutton, I ate mine and then @coopspeak's as well. The sorbetto on top was doused in Amaretto making a boozy first bite followed by layers of creaminess. A great way to end the meal on a decadent and decidedly Italian note.

Post-dessert treats
Tarragon and white chocolate lollies, dark chocolate with seabuckthorn and almond tuileSuch a lovely treat as the coffee and tea were rolled out. It was the first time I ate seabuckthorn,which had a sour punch. The sage and white chocolate was a great combination as well. And to put it lightly, I inhaled the tuile.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

New Discovery: Little Italy Walking Tour

Hello Italy!

Since moving downtown, I've been lucky to have so many amazing neighbourhoods to discover. I'm not far from Little Italy but until October, when I was invited to join The Culinary Adventure Company's walking tour, it remained unexplored. Of course, when you think Little Italy, you immediately think pizza, pasta and cannoli. But hanging with Chef Scott Savoie who runs the tour company, it just opens your eyes to how far from the truth that is. Little Italy is one of the most gastronomically diverse neighbourhoods where traditional Italian cooking and culinary experimentation co-exist peacefully. Here's a look at just what we savoured.

Okay, Sidecar isn't on the tour. What is located above it is where the tour begins. Either way, Sidecar is noteworthy as it's known for it's amazing take on local ingredients and is something of an institution in Toronto. They have a great prix fix menu (($25 for three courses; Sunday to Wednesday) and came highly recommended by Savoie and fellow food lover @coopspeak who was on the tour with us. I made a mental note but haven't tried it out yet.

Toronto Temperance Society
I loved the mystery of this member's only private club that actually requires a swipe card to get in. It made us feel extra special as we stepped into the dimly lit bar area of the TTS (as Torontonians refer to it), which specializes pre-prohibition cocktails and is known to have one of the most extensive liquor collections in Toronto. 

St Germain and ceviche (right); Cilantro Mule
Savoie chose two delicious cocktails for us to sip on. First, a refreshing  combination of St. Germain elderflower liqueur with soda water and Prosecco (it was like summer in a glass) and then an attitude filled Cilantro Mule with gin, ginger liqueur and cilantro. Accompanying the cocktails was a beautiful charcuterie platter with house-made bread and mustard. And if that wasn't enough, we also savoured some spot prawn ceviche and marinated olives. We all left hoping we could score a membership swipe card, which can be possible only if another member recommends you. If you get in, don't leave without trying their dirty martini.

Briscola; the motley tour crew

After a quick walk east, we stepped into Briscola where Savoie promised we would have the best short ribs in town. What we didn't expect was the delectable truffle pizza with caramelized onions, fresh burrata with roasted tomatoes and deep-fried olives with orange that preceded the main event! Make no mistake, these are no tasting plates. Wearing pants with a nice stretchy waistband should be a requirement when booking the tour.

Deep-fried olives
I've never had deep-fried olives before and this was absolutely delightful. This was the second of the trilogy of olives prepared differently, the first being the marinated version at TTS. Softly scented by the orange rind, these made an addictive nibble as we sipped on some red wine and waited in anticipation for the short ribs. 

Truffle pizza
I couldn't resist one of the larger slices that tasted wonderful with a light dip in the balsamic vinegar that was offered on the table - a nice little tip shared by Savoie. Aside from great recommendations of where to eat in Little Italy and explaining ingredients while we were eating, Savoie does a great job of playing host and treats everyone like an old friend rather than a tour client. You see that great picture of every at the top? We were actually that giggly and happy at the end of our meal at Briscola.

How can you say no to a fresh plate of silken burrata? This picture was snapped quickly because we all made a beeline for the plate and swiped most of the cheese barely after it made it to the table. We were all getting pretty full at this point and then the gorgeous short ribs made its grand entry.

Braised short ribs
Served on a creamy farro risotto, these ribs were a warm hug on that cold, rainy night in October. Just as the name suggests, the meat was succulent and  soft. It just slid of the bone and provided a nice textural counterpoint to the al dente farro. Although a tad on the sweet side for me, it was still a delicious end to the meal.

The last stop
LAB (Live and Breathe) was pretty exciting because we went from rustic-inspired food at Briscola to really modern interpretations. Aptly enough, the website cites the cuisine as 'Modern Italian Gastronomy' and chef Howard Dubrovsky is known for inspired creations like risotto with tomato water, saffron, Parmesan and basil creme fraiche orb. The menu takes inspiration from molecular gastronomy and Dubrovsky obviously has a great time playing with new flavours and textures.

Cocktail hour
Now talk about drama. Here is Dubrovsky getting ready to prepare LAB's signature smoked Manhattan, a modern take on the old favourite, made with hickory-smoked Triple Sec. And it resulted in...

... a beautifully smooth drink with a delicate smokiness that balanced the sweetness perfectly. It was a lovely start to what would be a truly memorable meal that started with the best pumpkin soup I have ever tasted. We enjoyed the Manhattan while nibbling on some warm olives, the final of the trilogy to be enjoyed.

Butter poached lobster
I quite literally inhaled this. It was served with corn done five ways and included the husk as the garnish and some corn smut as well. Innovative and so creative, it was  around now that I realized that I was getting quite full.

Duck two ways
I started to lose the battle unfortunately with this gorgeous plate. I adore duck and was able to savour just the ravioli and a slice of the breast. The jus was the most deeply flavoured sauces I have tried and seemed to have a perfume of juniper berry.

And scene...
The meal ended with a rosemary olive oil cake and vanilla plum sorbet. I loved the cake and managed to wolf it down and just treated myself to a small spoonful of the sorbet just as a palate cleanser. Talk about being suitably fed and watered! I had to decline when Savoie offered a digestif of chamomile grappa. The whole tour group was laughing, tweeting and swapping numbers by the end of the meal and we all parted with warm hugs and handshakes. Savoie certainly played chef, historian and host to the tee and had everyone in splits most of the time. To learn more about the tours that he offers, log on to the website.

Disclaimer: This tour was an invitation from Savoie and I did not pay for the same.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Sunday Dinner: Floyd Cardoz's Brisket

After six months of moving, we finally had my aunt and cousins over for a meal yesterday. We've gone from living in the same neighbourhood and seeing each other every couple of days, to seeing each other once in a blue moon for family occasions. To mark their first visit to our new place in Toronto, I decided to try my hand at making an Indian-inspired brisket from chef Floyd Cardoz's One Spice, Two Spice recipe book. Cardoz, like me, is a former Bombay resident and Top Chef Masters 2011 winner. Intrigued by his cooking style, I  picked up the book from the library and was hoping for a chance to make the brisket for a crowd. 

Which brings me to another highlight of the past week. We finally had a Loblaws open just 15 minutes away from where we live, making grocery shopping a whole lot easier. It used to be a real cumbersome exercise picking up bits and bobs from five different stores. Now with the cold settling in, being able to get all ingredients in one spot is a real blessing. So freshly trimmed brisket in hand, I was all excited marinating it on Friday night and spent the whole day of Saturday and Sunday dreaming about what it would turn out like. Sorry to spoil it for you, but the entire meal was a slam dunk win.

The brisket took a good four hours and the marinade reduced to a thick paste that worked perfectly as a sauce on the side. The meat cut like butter and has absorbed all the flavours of the ginger, garlic, vinegar and dried spices. I paired it with turmeric mashed potatoes and an apple-walnut raita, both also from Floyd's book. He indicated that the mashed potatoes were supposed to taste like the potato stuffing served with South Indian dosas and the description was right on the bat. And the raita, I have just one word: wow! It had such a beautiful balance of sweetness from the apple and tartness of the lime all tied together with the creamy yoghurt and fresh threads of mint. 

Without a doubt this meal will be replicated again soon. I was amazed at how wonderfully simple it was to cook the brisket and yet it turned out to be so impressive and flavourful. We all bounced back for seconds and promises were made that the recipe will be shared. Because it was exactly that kind of meal - homely, warm and comforting, just aching to be shared. And if you know me, that's exactly how I like every meal I share with friends and family to be.

Barbecued brisket (adapted from Floyd Cardoz's One Spice, Two Spice)
Serves 6

1 tbs black peppercorns
1 tbs cumin seeds
1 tbs mustard powder
1 cinnamon stick
2 dried kashmiri chillies
2 tbs chopped, peeled ginger
9 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1 heaping tsp ground turmeric
3 cups quartered and sliced white onion
2 tbs agave syrup
1 12-ounce bottle Belgian style ale or beer (I used a dark ale)
2 cups canned tomatoes, including juice
1 31/4-pound beef brisket (preferably the thinner cut), trimmed but with a thin layer of fat
kosher salt

Cardoz recommends blending the first five ingredients together in a coffee grinder/spice grinder and pureeing the ginger, garlic and vinegar separately. Then combine with the rest of the ingredients and marinate for two to three days. I just pureed everything together, removed it in a large bowl and then added the beer to it. I added the brisket and let it sit in the refrigerator.
Pre-heat oven to 350F. Bring the brisket to the boil on the stove top in a 5 to 6 quart ovenproof pot (Cardoz says it isn't necessary for the marinade to cover the brisket completely). Then cook for around 31/2 to four hours turning every half an hour until tender. Add water if the marinade reduces too much. Serve with turmeric masked potatoes.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Food trend: Pop up food events

Fidel Gastro sammies on the go

So I've been doing a lot of eating instead of cooking since Sean's mom got here. I've been meaning to tell you about a curious trend that has been keeping Toronto foodies busy the past couple months - pop-up food events. You pretty much have to be tuned to the Twitter and Facebook grapevine to get in on the action. Over the summer it was all about the food trucks, but now, it's nice to see other creative home cooks get their chance to shine. So here's a bit of a round-up of what we've been lucky to sample. 

Fidel Gastro - The Sandwich Maestro
I met Matthew Basile (a.k.a El Presidente/creator and founder) through mutual friend, Christine Cooper (a.k.a @coopspeak) at the Toronto Underground Market (TUM). When he invited us to the pop up Opposites Attract to sample some of his sandwiches (I was intrigued by the Cuban mac 'n' cheese) it was hard to refuse thanks to the passion he displayed talking about his journey from the corporate world to sandwich artist. What started as a quiet evening with Basile's sandwiches and vegan delicacies from The Feel Good Guru turned into a raucous party with Basile selling 250 sandwiches in just two hours. Of course, his Havana Club was excellent and the Cuban Mac spiked with chorizo did not disappoint.  Sean's fave was the Toronto Cheesteak. Basile has since sold sandwiches at TUM and 99 Sudbury.

Havana Club (left); Cuban Mac
Kale Salad and Falafel (left); Toronto Cheeseteak

La Carnita - Taco Specialists
If you ever see that skull graphic (a.k.a Meathead) around the city, there's a chance the La Carnita team are dishing out their tacos nearby. The brainchild of three creative gentlemen from
OneMethod Digital and Design, the team has held a whole stack of pop up events across the city - including TUM and Food Truck Eats - often featuring a guest chef. Curious about a Twitter thread that was going, I joined the masses and stood in line one Thursday evening in the summer to get a taste of their crisp Voltron fish taco complete with a sprinkle of crunchy purple cabbage that had everyone salivating virtually. That evening they had paired up with Steve Gonzalez (contestant of Top Chef Canada) who served a delicious adobo spiced pork taco with corn salsa. The deal? You pay for limited edition art work and get a taco goody bag. Read more about the unique concept online in Toronto Life.

Hello Meathead; Steve Gonzalez at work
Order to go; Voltron taco (left) and pork loin taco

Toronto Underground Market - Eclectic Flavours
This little gathering is hard to get into, as it takes place just once every month and charges a $10 entry fee. Run by Hassel Aviles at the
Evergreen Brickworks, it provides home and professional cooks a platform to sell their edible wares to the ever voracious public. Inspired by a similar event in San Francisco, this market has become a much anticipated gathering for food lovers in the GTA. We were lucky to get tickets through @coopspeak and we hung out with her and her hubby Dennis munching our way through samosas, arancini and ramen and mingling with fellow foodies. Make no mistake, the lines do get long but as long as you have some company and a glass of wine in hand it's all good.

Romanian meatball soup; arancini
Dennis, Christine and Sean; Shinaki-Co ramen

Thursday, November 3, 2011

New Discovery: CakeStar

The CakeStar Girlz - Barbara (left) and Monja

The first thing that strikes you about Barbara Accogli and Monja Chiaravalloti is their smiles.

That’s something worth remembering because as you get them talking about their edible art business, CakeStar, those smiles get wider as they describe the gorgeous cakes and pastries they conjure up each day. Heavily influenced by their dad, master baker Nicola, who ran his own bakery for 26 years, the sisters get nostalgic as they recall the past. Listening to memories of their sweet childhood is like reading about the delicious midnight feasts in an Enid Blyton novel. But while I had to make do with fiction, Accogli and Chiaravalloti actually got to live the real version – in broad day light.

The girls and their dad

“We used to have sleepovers and then we used to have breakfast at the bakery with our friends the next morning,” explains Accogli. “My mom and dad would make us cappuccinos or hot chocolate and then place this big bowl of tiramisu on the table and give each of us a spoon. And we would all just dive in and start eating. Sometimes it would even be leftover pieces of cake and frosting. It was delicious!”

That love for all things sweet is what led Barbara and Monja to open CakeStar. From gravity defying wedding cakes to cake balls and some of the best cannoli in Toronto, the sisters channelled their passion into making dreamy (and artful) treats for others. While I’m at the store, a potential customer enters with a dress dripping diamantes, which she wants reflected on her birthday cake. Barbara and Monja spring into action throwing out ideas on different designs and cake heights. Within seconds the customer is caught up in their enthusiasm as well and is sharing her own vision for the cake.

Passion is a word you won’t just hear often, but you’ll experience when you meet Barbara and Monja. I met them for the first time at the media opening of their store a couple of weeks ago where they taught guests how to fill cannoli (a store speciality) and decorate cake balls. Ecstatic that their dream of a cake store had come to fruition, they happily chatted about being thankful for the chance to put a smile on their customer’s faces. “We have regulars who we have done the engagement cake for, then their wedding cake and now their baby shower cakes as well,” says Monja. “Many of them recognise the passion that we share for what we do and they tell us, ‘we’re not going anywhere else’.”

But breaking the Guinness world record for the 'most layered cake' and having their cupcakes featured on NBC's series Suits aside, do they eat a lot of cake? “A bit too much,” says Monja laughing. “We just like to have fun and enjoy what we do. When people come into the store we want them to feel welcome and relaxed.” And judging from the walls painted a funky green to the chirpy ‘hello’ you get when you enter the store, you'll immediately know that you’re in good hands. And guess what? That tempting array of treats in the store front is going to ensure you don't leave empty handed as well.

Cakestar is located at 3431 lakeshore Blvd W, Etobicoke, M8W 1N2.
Barbara and Monja also host cake decorating classes and have a wicked selection of naughty cakes, wedding cakes, cake balls, cupcakes, cannoli and baked treats. Check out the images on their website. You can also read their tips on throwing a dessert party.