Thursday, March 29, 2007

A Spring Fresh Fruit Tart

Today was the first day I allowed myself to believe that spring really has arrived!

Noah and I were heading down the front path on our way to the produce market, when I spotted some bright green tips poking out of the earth through the mud and slush. My daffodils! My first though was that I must have planted them too shallow, because this was much too early for them to be greeting the sun. Great. Getting off on the wrong foot for my gardening season already.
But as we walked along, I scrutinized all the neighbors flower beds and sure enough, I saw plenty of other signs of bulbs m
aking an appearance.
Spring has arrived!

Now, it’s not quite warm enough to be saying good bye to all our comforting, hearty winter dishes, and I’m sure I’ll still be making the occasional roast chicken or rice pudding, but this fresh fruit tart is like a foreshadowing of great things to come. U.S. strawberries are affordable at the markets now and there’s plenty of flavorful fruit to fill up a tart.

Happy Spring!

Fresh Fruit Tart

All-purpose flour, for dusting
Tart dough
½ cup sugar
½ vanilla bean or 1 teaspoon vanilla
An assortment of fresh, seasonal fruit, about 2 cups sliced
Pastry cream

On a well floured surface, roll out tart dough and line a tart pan with a removable bottom. Trim dough flush with the pan and prick all over with a fork. Chill at least 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 375F. Line the tart with parchment paper and fill with pie weights or dried beans. Bake until edges are golden, 15-17 minutes. Remove parchment a
nd weights. Return to oven; continue baking until golden brown all over, about 15 minutes. Cool.

In a small saucepan, combine sugar with ¼ cup wate
r and vanilla. Bring to a boil, then turn off heat. Set aside to cool.

To assemble:
Pour cold pastry cream into the cooled tart shell and smooth with a spatula. Arrange fruit on top however you desire. Using a party brush, gently brush vanilla syrup over fruit. Serve immediately.
Serves 8.

Pastry Cream

2 cups whole milk
½ cup sugar
1 vanilla bean, split in two
4 large egg yolks
¼ cup cornstarch
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

In a medium saucepan, combine the milk, ¼ cup sugar, vanilla and salt. Cook over medium heat until mixture comes to a simmer.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, cornstarch, and remaining ¼ cup sugar. Whisking constantly, slowly pour about ½ cup of the hot-milk mixture into the egg mixture. Continue adding milk mixture, ½ cup at a time, until it has been incorporated. Pour mixture back into saucepan, and cook over medium-high heat, whisking constantly, until it thickens, about 2 minutes. Remove vanilla bean, scrape pod with the tip of a knife to remove seeds. Add seeds to custard and discard bean.

Transfer to the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Add butter, and beat on medium speed until butter melts and the mixture cools, about 5 minutes.
Cover with plastic wrap, pressing it directly onto the surface of the pastry cream to prevent a skin from forming. Refrigerate until chilled, at least 2 hours or up to 2 days.

Tart Dough

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
½ cup confectioners’ sugar
2 large egg yolks
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons heavy cream

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine butter and confectioners’ sugar. Mix on low speed until combined, about 2 minutes.
Add egg yolks, and mix until incorporated, about 1 minute. Add ¾ cup flour, and mix on low speed just until flour is incorporated, about 30 seconds. Add remaining ¾ cup flour along with the salt and cream, and mix until flour is no longer visible, about 1 minute.
Turn dough onto a piece of plastic wrap, and shape into a flattened disk. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or overnight.

Monday, March 26, 2007

End of an Era

Philippe in action

I catered my last party with Philippe de Vienne on Friday and what a night to remember! Before I had Noah, I was working with PdV full time as an assistant caterer, helping him on big projects or sub-contracting small ones. I’ve been back a few times to help when he’s been particularly busy and needs an extra hand in the kitchen. This was my final opportunity to work with him as he is closing his catering business and moving on to other projects.

Things have changed in the past few years for Montreal’s best traiteur. He now owns two hugely successful stores at Jean Talon Market, Olives & Epices and La Depense:epicerie du monde, he has a radio show, appears regularly on TV, and he is also working on a cookbook! All that combined makes for a very busy chef and after 30 years, he has said good bye to his faithful clients and has closed his catering forever. I was fortunate to be able to work with him. He is a true master of the kitchen and is undoubtedly the best chef I know.

A 35 lb Halibut marinates in a coconut, mint and coriander masala as it awaits the oven.

I have to recount to you some of the events of this last party that we did! No names, of course, to respect to privacy of the client, but I did manage to take a few pictures amid all the excitement, even though they don't do the dishes justice.

Big, Big, BIGGER! were the instructions from our client as they welcomed 100 people into their gorgeous Upper Westmount home and everything we did was lavish and over the top, from the oyster bar featuring $1000 worth of succulent shellfish, to the gourmet lobster and foie gras ‘hot-dogs’ with porto sauce. Champagne was slurped by guests lingering around the grand piano in the salon, while in the kitchen we steamed mounds of tender young asparagus and roasted off dozens of quail in a rose petal sauce. Here are just a few of the dishes from that night.

We served an enormous haunch of Elk (background of photo) encrusted in a Red Wine and Sandalwood rub. This was the jaw dropper of the evening as people tried to wrap their minds around the sheer size of this great Canadian beast. One fellow remarked to his friend while he waited for his piece:
"Isn't that the biggest leg of anything you have ever seen?"
To which his friend replied:
"Well....I've known some dancers..."
I had to bite back a laugh, as I did when a New Yorker loudly proclaimed:
"This is the first time I've ever had elk. Now I'm addicted to it! Who knew?"

PdV actually had an elderly lady exclaim that that was the biggest chicken she has ever seen! He didn't skip a beat, but solemnly asked her if she would like white or dark meat, a comment he later confessed he was quite tickled with.

In the foreground of the photo is roasted Lobster Tails with a White Chocolate and Lemongrass Hollandaise. By far, one of the most divine and decadent sauces I have ever tasted. People were swooning over this dish and kept coming back for more. One gentleman asked me if it was OK if he took two lobsters and I said sure, lots of people were.
"OK, I'll take three then." He said. Classy.

My favorite dish: Vij's Marinated Lamb 'Popsicles' with a Fenugreek Cream Curry.

This is actually a signature dish of Vancouver chef Vikram Vij, who is also a good friend of Philippe's. It is included in his brilliant cookbook, Vij's Elegant and Inspired Indian Cuisine, but you, dear reader may find it right here on UtHC.

Cashews in a Coconut Curry. They're always the favorite part of the traditional chicken and cashew curry dish, so why not make the whole dish out of cashews? Pure decadence.

This was my baby, a massive halibut with a spicy coconut and mint sauce. I had fun serving it. People are so funny/fussy about fish.
Gentleman: "Is that goat?"
Me (dying to laugh): No, it's halibut".......(noticing he still looks confused)...."FISH."
Gentleman: "OH!!I didn't know fish came without scales."
I didn't get to photograph the desserts, but this was the cheese. An entire wheel of Brie de Meaux and a slab of aged Stilton. Mmm. For dessert there was a fluffy champagne sabayon with fresh berries, a rich flourless chocolate cake, creme brulé with spices and vanilla, a compote of stewed dried fruit and Syrian pastries.

After a 15 hour day, I was exhausted, and as we sat around the kitchen after the guests were long gone, sipping port and eating slabs of Brie with raisin bread, I realized that this was the end of an era for me. For Philippe, for the cater-waiters, for all of us. People were snapping pictures, exchanging emails, business cards and hugs as we prepared to go our separate ways. It had been a fun run over the years; it had had it's ups and down, but was always interesting.
Perhaps this night had been the best of them all.

Vij's Marinated Lamb Popsicles with Fenugreek Cream Curry


For the popsicles:

  • 2-3 French cut racks of lamb (with the bone cleaned down to the chop)
  • ¼ cup white wine
  • ¼ cup grainy yellow mustard
  • ¼ teaspoon salt

For the Curry Cream:

  • 2 tbsp. crushed garlic
  • 3 tbsp. canola oil
  • 1 tsp. turmeric
  • 1 litre whipping cream
  • 1 tbsp. dried green fenugreek flakes (known as 'kasuri methi')
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • ½ tsp. cayenne pepper
  • ¼ cup lemon juice
  • ¼ tsp. paprika

Cut the racks of lamb into the 'popsicles' by slicing the chops in between the bones. Mix the white wine, mustard and salt together in a large bowl, then add the popsicles, turning to coat them on all sides. Cover and set aside in the refrigerator for a couple of hours.

In a separate bowl, mix together the whipping cream, salt, paprika, cayenne, fenugreek flakes and lemon juice. In a medium-sized, heavy pot, saut? the crushed garlic in the canola oil. Once the garlic is golden in colour, add the turmeric, stir and heat for one minute. Add the whipping cream mixture, stir and heat on low to medium heat for a few minutes. (the water in the whipping cream will evaporate, thickening the sauce. If your heat is too high, the cream will separate.) If making the sauce a day ahead, let the garlic mixture cool completely, then add to the cream mixture and refrigerate. Thicken the sauce close to serving time by heating gently.

Grill the popsicles just before you are ready to serve your meal. You can either pour the cream curry over the grilled popsicles or use it as a dipping curry for them.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

A Celebration Dinner

Josh finishes his meal off with coffee and creme brulée.

Eight years ago this spring, I left my family and friends in beautiful British Columbia and moved to this vastly different, but wonderful province of Quebec. While I have acclimatized to the culture well enough to call Montreal my home, one thing will never change: my continual pining for my family far, far away on the other side of the country. It hasn’t gotten any easier as the years have gone on, in fact, since having a baby, it’s gotten more difficult.

That said, on the rare occasion of a visit from my dear family, I am inclined to kill the fatted calf and make merry! Such was the case last week when we welcomed my brother, Josh, his wife, Laura and their 10-month-old, Ava Grace, into our home for a few days. There was much to celebrate, and what better way to start than with a feast!

Young Asparagus and Aged Cheddar Gratiné, Pine Nuts, Black Trumpet Mushrooms, Reduction of Cabernet Vinegar

Sautéed Shrimp with Mojo Sauce, Salad of Fennel, Napa Cabbage and Blood Oranges

Roasted Breast of Quail with Maple-Chardonnay Vinegar Reduction, Braised Baby Bok Choi, and Puree of Butternut Squash

Braised Loin of Lamb with Black Currant Sauce, Roasted Fingerling Potatoes, Mini Turnip and Yellow Pattypan Squash.

Raspberry and Mascarpone Tart (not pictured b/c they got gobbled up too fast)

Tonka Bean Crème Brulée

Laura and Ava snuggle post dinner.

The sauteed shrimp with the tangy Mojo sauce was the hit of the evening. It is one of my favorite sauces, very versatile and pairs well with seafood, chicken or grilled red meats. It is traditionally a Cuban sauce, but not suprisingly, has many variations. This one is one of the most simple I have come across. Mix up a batch and be seduced by the bold citrus flavors as you toss it with warm cooked shrimp, coat chicken brochettes with it, pour it over grilled fish, or serve it along side roast pork.

MOJO Sauce

Zest and juice of 3 oranges
Zest and juice of 3 limes
1 clove garlic, peeled and grated fine
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
6 Tablespoons olive oil

Mix everything together. Cover and let marinade 6-8 hours. Serve with seafood or meat of your choice.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Top Ten Dining Out Pet Peeves

I admit, I have high standards, but it’s because I know how restaurants work-or should work. Sometimes, I wish I didn’t know the inner tickings of the friendly neighborhood bistro, the popular breakfast joint, or the ever-so-snooty fine dining establishment. It’s like every time I eat out, I am filling out my very own comment card in my head. I can’t help it. The higher priced the menu, the higher my standards.
But shouldn’t it be that way?
If I am paying good money for this dining experience, I expect to have a satisfying outcome in return.

Sadly, that is seldom the case.

Top 10 Dining Out Pet Peeves:

1. Waiting... for the menus, for the food, for the bill. Just waiting for a long time. Waiting for food really gets me squirming. There are times when I know I could hit the kitchen, single-handedly slap out the food for each person at my table and sit back down in about seven minutes. Why the huge waits? And don’t even think about serving the table next to me, who ordered after me, before you bring my food.

2. Bad Waiters: the Snooty, the Sloppy, the Slacker, the Snoopy! They really deserve their own top10 pet peeves, but I won’t bother. Besides, as a chef, it’s kind of like our motto to hate waiters. Sorry, but in the professional kitchen they are the enemy and we have our reasons.

3. Cold food. Cold food makes me boil with annoyance. I know it’s not that hard to get a hot plate out. Be it the kitchen’s shortcoming or the waiters oversight, it makes me want to get up, march into the kitchen and start a grease fire.

“Oh! This is your deep-fry fat, right? Well, take that!” Boom.

4. Mixed up orders: Waiters. This is your job. How hard is it (especially when you are writing it down) to convey what I am saying to you back to the kitchen? Kitchen’s fault? Then why did you bring it out to me? If you think maybe I won’t notice, then you’ve got the wrong customer.

5. Annoying Customers around you. This can’t really be helped. As people watching is one of the many great perks to eating out, you kind of have to take the wheat with the chaff. Still, irritating can-only-speak-at-100-decibels-into-my-cellphone guy at the next table should only be allowed to eat take out Chinese. At home. By himself.

6. Stupid Rules: Like you can only eat if you drink or drink if you eat. You know the places I’m talking about. You’re out at the pub with a few friends and you just want an iced tea and a basket of crab cakes. “Sorry Madame, I can only bring you those crab cakes if you order some alcohol” Are you kidding me? Guess the costumer is not always right.

7. Cheesy Theme Menus or items with stupid names like “The Prune Pit-for people on the go” or whatever. Menus with ‘funny’ or ‘cutsy’ names annoy the heck out of me and I have a theory that abuse of the English language usually leads to abuse of food. Also, I have issues with absurdly lengthy menus. Longer is not better.

8. Bad Tables: Every restaurant has them. The drafty one near the door; another one next to the kitchen’s swinging doors (that give glimpses into a world you really, really didn’t need to know about); the one in the middle of the thoroughfare where you can count how many times the pregnant chick goes the bathroom because she bumps your chair every time….Bad tables can ruin a night out.

9. Overpriced Menus: I’m not talking about expensive menus, as those are often justified by high quality food, but the place that has no special view, no celeb chef, no prime location, but still decides they can charge $18.95 for Penne Arrabiata and $27.95 for a chicken breast a la blah blah blah.

10. Pushy Sommeliers: I like to choose my own wine when I go out. I know some sommeliers can be very helpful, but they are generally pretty snooty and always trying to steer me toward the pricier bottles. There should also be no eyebrow raising if I just decide to order by the glass- or not at all.

With all the possible things that could go wrong during a meal out, you would think I would be inclined to save my money and stay home; however, it may surprise you that I DO enjoy most of my dining experiences, and when I don't feel like taking the risk, there's always take-out.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Foodie Facebook: Dana

Name: Dana

Place: Pentiction, British Columbia, Canada

Occupation: Chef/Owner Joy Road Catering

1. What is your earliest childhood food memory? I remember my mom would spread a sheet of brown paper over the table, sit my brother and me down, and give us each a pomegranate. We would amuse ourselves for a long time breaking them apart, eating them and squirting juice at each other.

2. What did you eat today? B) Korean Kimche soup with tofu; L) Goat Roti; D) Serano ham with olives and almonds, salad of beets, Roquefort and watercress.

3. What will your kids never be allowed to eat? Pre-made nasty plastic lunch snackables; unripe fruit from halfway around the world when we live in the Okanogan Valley.

4. What do you always have on hand in your fridge? Homemade pickles, salted butter

5. What is your beverage of choice? Campari and Orangina, Organic apple juice from Joie

6. If you could have dinner with anyone in the history of man, who would it be? Alice Waters

7. Ok, it’s your last meal ever, what do you have? Dim Sum Feast and really ripe Red Haven Peaches

Friday, March 09, 2007

The Passing of a Chef

Chef Robert Pietrantonio 1963-2007

Shortly after this past Christmas, I was quite shocked to receive an email from my old culinary school informing me that my teacher had passed away on Christmas morning. I couldn’t believe it, as he was still a very active cooking professor in his early forties and full of life. I was saddened, but it didn't seem to sink in right away; however, for the rest of the week I reflected back to my school days more than usual.

Not long ago was the memorial for him at my school, which regrettably, I couldn’t attend. Days later, I was still struggling with the fact that I wouldn’t get a proper chance to pay my respects, when an email popped into my inbox from a former classmate who did make the memorial and was filling me in on some details. He told me that they had found a letter a few of the students and I had written my teacher upon graduation in his personal effects at school, and that they read it out loud at the memorial.

I was stunned. He had kept it all this time.

The sun was streaming in through the window; Noah was playing happily on the floor, yet suddenly when I read this, it hit me, and I found myself weeping.

I cried because he was gone and I couldn’t say goodbye or thank you. I cried because he had been a huge encouragement and a mentor to little, inexperienced me, and I never repaid him in any way. I cried because I had lost touch almost immediately after graduating, even though I knew our friendship was special to him, and because his last words as I was leaving school were:
“Ah, you’re going off to Toque! You’re going to do something great with yourself and your going to forget about us and this place. You won’t come back and visit; you’ll be to busy.”
I told him of course I wouldn’t forget and that I would keep in touch and be back to visit and tell funny stories from the various kitchens I worked in and the crazy chefs that ran them.

But he was right. I didn’t. Not once.

How did I get so wrapped up in my busy life that I forgot those who pointed me in this direction in the first place? Robert Pietrantonio was the one who really pushed me to do my internship at Toque!, which lead to a job offer, which lead to a career and opened a lot of doors. He also submitted my name as a candidate for a Lieutenant Governors Award, which I later received in 2001 for Outstanding Scholastic Achievement.

Well, I could argue that it was some of the busiest years of my life: working up the ladder in Montreal’s fine dining scene, moving across town, getting engaged, planning a wedding and getting married, having a baby; yet.....I probably could have made time to visit my old school at least once.

It's definitely got me thinking about people you encounter along the way down the path of life; people who help bushwack that path and give you some advice or words of encouragement as you go.

I've been blessed to have crossed paths with many wonderful people who have been mentors to me.
Chef Robert was one of them.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Ooohhh, Tiramisu

Leave it to the Italians to come up with an ultimately sexy dessert like tiramisu. I mean, the combination of espresso soaked lady’s fingers (whoever named those was probably a Romeo himself), whipped cream, coffee liqueur, shaved chocolate, and mascarpone, one of the riches, most divine soft cheeses around, is an unbeatable ensemble. Just assembling the tiramisu, with it velvety triple cream mascarpone and soft whipped cream, was a sensual experience.

Eating it wasn’t too bad either.

There are several versions of this Italian dessert, the traditional way involving making a zabaglione from marsala, egg yolks and sugar and mixing this with the mascarpone. Cocoa is usually sifted on top, but I much prefer shaved chocolate.
My recipe is for a quick and easy tiramisu, one that the inexperienced cook can make at home successfully. I'm not Italian, so I feel perfectly at ease making a few shortcuts! This recipe was fantastic and seemed to get better every day as it chilled in the fridge and the flavors melded together. You must try it!
Pictured here are some of the essential ingredients: shaved dark chocolate, ladies fingers, Kahlua and whipping cream, and here is the full recipe!
(NOTE! In the photos shown, I am making a double recipe, so don't be confused if the recipe says make a layer of 6 lady fingers, and in the photo it's obvious that I will need 12)


250 grams mascarpone cheese
1/3 cup sugar
2 tablespoons coffee flavored liqueur
½ cup whipping cream
2 teaspoons vanilla
¼ cup strong espresso or coffee
12-16 ladyfinger biscuits

¼ cup grated bittersweet chocolate

Beat mascarpone with sugar and liqueur until creamy.

In a separate bowl, beat whipping cream with vanilla until soft peaks hold. Stir half into mascarpone mixture, then fold in remaining cream.

Place coffee in a shallow bowl and dip both sides of ladyfingers into it. Place about 6 ladyfingers, breaking to fit if needed, in an 8x4 inch loaf pan. Top with half of the mascarpone mixture, then half of the grated chocolate.

Repeat with ladyfingers, then another layer of mascarpone (finishing the mixture) and coat with grated chocolate.
Refrigerate at least 8 hours, overnight is better, and a few days is just fine, too!

To serve: using a large spoon, dish into pretty martini glasses or small bowl. Garnish with strawberries, if you like.
Makes 6-8 serving.
This tiramisu also freezes well.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

DIY: Antipasto.That's Amore!

Wilted Spinach and Garlic Crostini with Parmesan (recipe below)

Crusty breadsticks, plump cherry tomatoes, juicy melon with prosciutto, garlicy bruschettas, meaty green olives, spicy sausages…what's not to love? The good news? You can Do It Yourself!

Roasted Cherry Tomatoes with Thyme and Garlic (recipe below)

The Italian word “antipasto” literally means ‘before the meal,’ but I love this type of food so much, I served it as the meal at a little Oscars party we had on Sunday.

The term antipasto is very broad as it includes a wide selection of appetizers that may consist of a combination of cured meats, cheeses, marinated vegetables, bread, fish, seafood, fruit and much, much more.
It’s an ideal way to feed people informally if you don’t feel like doing a sit down dinner or if you’re all gathered in the living room around the TV. It’s very easy to prepare, and usually doesn’t involve much more than opening some jars, arranging sliced meats, and locating the best breads around. Using good ingredients and the best quality products is key to a great antipasto! Also important is serving everything at room temperature(unless, of cour
se, it is meant to be enjoyed hot, such as meatballs.) One can better appreciate the flavors if what they are eating is not bone cold.

Prosciutto, Genoa Salami, Mortadella and Calabrese

These spicy Italian sausages were great cooked up, sliced, and served with grainy mustard and gherkins.

Marinated Artichoke Hearts, Bocconcini with Thyme, and Roasted Tomatoes with Garlic

Homemade Focaccia

A selection of non-alcoholic Italian beverages

If you want to have your own antipasto meal, I suggest you start by making a visit to the best Italian grocers in your area; you will find plenty of inspiration there and if you are short on time, you fill find a lot of antipasto items already made up.
Just to get you started, here are a few recipes to try out!

Oven Roasted Cherry Tomatoes with Garlic and Thyme

A generous handful of cherry tomatoes
¼ cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Spring of thyme
2 garlic cloves

Combine all ingredients in an oven-proof saucepan. Roast gently at 325F until tomato skins start to crack. Remove from oven and cool.
Serve warm or at room temperature with crusty bread.

Wilted Spinach and Garlic Crostini with Parmesan

Half French baguette, sliced
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt
2 - 10 oz bags baby spinach
2 teaspoons butter
6 garlic cloves, minced
2 anchovies, minced
½ teaspoon hot pepper flakes

Parmesan, for garnish

Preheat oven to 425F
Brush baguette slices with some of the olive oil and place on baking sheet. Toast until golden brown. Sprinkle with salt and let cool.

Melt butter in a skillet over medium-high heat and add spinach. ( you may have to do it in two batches, depending on the size of your skillet) Stir often until wilted and it begins to release a lot of its juices. Drain off liquid and turn spinach onto paper towel. Blot spinach dry.

Heat remaining oil in skillet. Cook garlic, anchovies and hot pepper flakes for about two minutes or until golden. Add spinach and toss to coat with oil and garlic sauce. Cook gently until well coated and warm. Season to taste with salt.
Divide spinach among toasted baguette crostinis and top with a shaving of Parmesan.
Serve warm.

Mmm! Makes me want to go whip some up right now! Yes, Tammy, you may substitute goat cheese for the Parmesan, but it won’t be quite as exciting. It really benefits from the sharp, salty Parmesan.


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