Monday, February 28, 2011

The Swamp Cabbage Festival: La Belle, Florida

Never heard of swamp cabbage? Neither had I. It's the heart of the Sabal Palm, which happens to be the state tree of Florida. Swamp cabbage is also called polecat weed, stinking poke and skunk weed. Hungry yet? Swamp cabbage may also be one of the most misunderstood and disrespected foods in Florida, except in the town of La Belle where they've been celebrating the cabbage for almost fifty years now, with the annual Swamp Cabbage Festival. 

La Belle is a world away from the reality with which I'm familiar, which
is why I was so intrigued by the Swamp Cabbage Festival — it was an opportunity to see another side of America. I was a little apprehensive at first, as I had never ventured into Florida's interior before. I imagined driving down a dirt road with the soundtrack of 'Deliverance' going through my head, and when I passed a convoy of vintage Ford automobiles, I honestly thought I was entering the 'Twilight Zone'. I couldn't have been more wrong. 

The La Belle Swamp Cabbage Festival is a small-town extravaganza where teenage girls compete to be crowned 'Miss Swamp Cabbage', where local church groups sing "Someday I hope to hold the hand of Jesus", and gentle town-folk place bets on the ever popular armadillo races. Six Armadillos, rustled from their cool nest of hay, are placed at the starting line, only to teeter down the 8-foot course, and God willing, at least one or two of the 'dillos' make it to the finish line without laying down midway, waddling back to the starting line or moving at all. I put my $2 bet on 'Twinkie' and to my great amazement, won! 

And of course there was food. Lots and lots of food. My first taste of stink weed came as a small cup of swamp cabbage fritters with a side of gator tail. Both were actually quite tasty. The swamp cabbage fritters were pleasantly sour and crunchy, much like fried dill pickle might taste. The gator tail was chewy, tasting a little bit like fish but with the texture of rabbit or beef, and in a spicier batter than the stinking poke. Alligator, being a tough meat, needs to be tenderized by being pounded or marinated to make it delectable. Being deep fried in a tasty batter helps too.

Other culinary highlights of the festival included boiled peanuts, mangrove honey, Indian Fried bread and 'gator' tacos. One 'Uber-Gourmand' I met skewered her swamp cabbage fritters on Palmetto Palm fronds, which she harvested, washed, trimmed by hand and then pre-froze to keep them in peak condition for the festival. When I mentioned that they looked great, she smiled and said "You bet. It took a long time, but you can't put a price on love." Ain't that the truth!

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Bijou Café - Sarasota's Little Jewel

I was aware of The Bijou before I even walked through their doors. One of Sarasota's prettiest restaurants, this little jewel of a place is nestled on the quiet corner of Pineapple and First in the old quarter of Sarasota and the heart of the theatre district. It's a lovely building with a small beautifully landscaped courtyard in the front, that's decked out with twinkle lights in the evening.

The Bijou is absolutely lovely, inside and out, but the food is even more exceptional. And the staff, knowledgable and friendly. I ordered the Shrimp and Crab Bisque with cognac, sherry, baby shrimp, blue crab and cream, which was exquisitely rich, thick and velvety with a hint of cayenne, which provided a wonderful underlying warmth and spiciness to the soup. I knew as I took the first spoonful, it was the best bisque I had ever tasted. It was pure heaven.

While sipping on a chilled glass of Italian Pinot Grigio and a small basket of fresh baked rolls with fresh churned butter, my Cornmeal Fried Oysters arrived. 

My server Karen, informed me that The Bijou only uses the plumpest oysters that are delivered fresh each day. They came with a refreshing citrus tartar sauce, picked shallots and a delightful chervil oil drizzle. Light and delicate, the oysters were especially delicious, with the grated orange zest that accented the citrus tartar sauce. 

After the fabulous lunch, I declined the offer of a dessert menu, when lo and behold, a complimentary platter arrived with three hand made Bijou chocolate truffles, nicely chilled with a fine dusting of cocoa powder and a hint of orange, each truffle was placed over an artful drizzle of raspberry coulis spelling out the word — Bijou. I don't remember, but I think I floated home.

The Bijou Café

1287 First Street, Sarasota, Florida 34236
Tel: (941) 366-8111

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Floribbean Conch Chowder and Fritters

Conch has had a profound influence on the Florida Keys. Natives of Key West and the Bahamas proudly call themselves conchs, and in the past, proud parents in Key West placed a conch shell on a stick in the front of their house to inform neighbors of a new born infant. 

In the early 1800s, people from the Bahamas began migrating to the Florida Keys, which explains why conch is so much a part of the Keys heritage. Once abundant in the Key, the Key's most famous shell — the Queen Conch — was banned from being harvested in the U.S. since the 1980's because its population has been so severely depleted. However, conch is still harvested elsewhere, especially in the Caribbean and the Bahamas, where it continues to be harvested and exported exported with government control. 

Conch had to be protected because it is the favorite food of many Caribbeans, where its a major food source. When prepared properly to soften the texture of the meat, many people consider conch to be among the choicest seafoods of the world. In the Florida Keys restaurants often will include on their menu conch fritters, conch seviche, conch salad, a marinated dish called cracked conch and of course the ever popular conch chowder. This wonderful Conch recipe is a blend of Bahamian and South Florida culture.

Florida Conch Chowder
Serves 6-8

4 large diced tomatoes
1 medium diced onion
6 small minced green onions
2 cloves of fresh minced garlic
2 stalks diced celery
2 large diced carrots
1 chopped red bell pepper
1 medium diced potato
6-8 sprigs of chopped parsley
4 sprigs fresh thyme
1/2 tsp of ground allspice
3 bay leaves
1 16-oz can of clam juice
2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
2 cups cold water
1 lb cleaned and chopped conch meat
3 slices of crisp bacon
1/4 cup of white wine
Juice of 1 fresh lime
salt and fresh ground pepper to taste

In a large pot, cook the bacon over medium heat until browned and the fat is rendered, about 5 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon.

In the center of a 6-inch square piece of cheesecloth, place the allspice, bay leaves, and thyme. Draw up the sides to form a pouch and tie with kitchen twine to form a bouquet garni. To the fat in the pan, add the onions, celery, carrots, potatoes, parsley, and bell peppers and cook over medium-high heat until soft, about 4 or 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add the hot pepper and garlic and cook while stirring for 30 seconds. Add the tomatoes and cook stirring for 2 minutes. Then add the clam juice, water and potatoes and bring to a boil. Add the bouquet garni, reduce the heat to simmer, and stir occasionally, for 25 to 30 minutes. Add the conch and cook until the meat is tender, about 20 minutes.

Remove pot from the heat and discard the bouquet garni. Add the lime juice and parsley, stir to combine and adjust the seasoning to taste. Ladle into bowls with a platter of conch fritters on the side.

COOK'S NOTE: For some additional heat and Spice, try the following: 1/4 teaspoon crushed red chili flakes, or Cayenne pepper to taste, 1 jalapeno or habenero pepper, seeded and diced! You can find frozen Conch meat at Mike's at The St. Lawrence Market and Diana's Seafood in Toronto.

Floribbean Conch Fritters
Makes about 42 fritters

2 tsp vegetable oil
1/4 cup finely chopped white onions
2 tbsp finely chopped red bell peppers
1 tsp minced garlic
1 tsp minced jalapeno peppers
1/4 tsp cayenne
2 cups steamed or par-boiled and finely diced conch meat, about 1 pound
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 large egg, beaten
1 cup whole milk
Dash hot red pepper sauce
1 tbsp chopped parsley leaves
Vegetable oil, for frying

In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the onions, bell peppers, garlic, peppers, and cayenne and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Add the conch and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and cool.

Into a large bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Add the egg, milk, and pepper sauce and mix to make a thick batter. Stir in the parsley and the cooled conch mixture.

In a large deep saute pan or cast iron skillet, heat enough oil to come 2 to 3 inches up the sides of the pan to 350°F.

Drop the batter, a heaping tablespoon at a time, into the oil and cook, turning once, until golden brown, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Serve hot as an appetizer with spicy chipotle mayonnaise or with a steaming bowl of Conch Chowder.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Floridean Key Lime Pie

Key Lime Pie is one the quintessential Floridean dishes — the pink flamingo of Florida cuisine. You can always tell how important a dish is to a local culture by how heated the arguments get over the authenticity of a recipe. Aficionados of Key Lime Pie argue endlessly about the proper way to make one. Graham cracker or pastry crust? Meringue on top or whipped cream, or neither? Cooked or uncooked filling? The one thing that they do agree on is that under no circumstances should you ever add green food coloring. The filling of authentic Key Lime Pie is a light yellow.

Key Lime Pie has a fascinating story too. Key limes are not native to the Florida Keys, as many people believe. The key lime tree is native to Malaysia, and probably first arrived in Florida in the 1500s with the Spanish. 
As to who made the first key lime pie, no one really knows for sure, but it wasn't until the 1930s that the first recipes were written down. Interestingly, there was no fresh milk, refrigeration, or ice available in the Florida Keys until 1930, and so local cooks had to rely on canned sweetened condensed milk. Even though key limes may be the star ingredient of Key Lime Pie, it's the sweetened condensed milk that makes the pie so smooth and delicious. And the rest is history, but this time it really was, because in 2006, the Florida State Legislature officially recognized Key Lime Pie as the Official State Pie. It must have been a slow day.

Key Lime Pie

1 1/3 cup crushed graham crackers
8 tbsp butter
¼ cup brown sugar

½ cup freshly-squeezed key lime juice
4 egg yolks
1 can sweetened condensed milk

Meringue: (optional)
10 egg whites
¼ cup powder sugar
½ tsp vanilla extract

Preheat over to 400°F. Combine the graham cracker crumbs, butter, and brown sugar in a mixing bowl. Press gently into 9 inch pie plate and bake for 10 minutes in the oven, or until lightly brown. Take the crust out to cool slightly. 

Meanwhile, beat 4 egg yolks for 3 or 4 minutes until their color turns pale yellow. While beating, slowly drizzle in the sweetened condensed milk. Once incorporated, whisk in the lime juice and set aside. 

For the Meringue: In another bowl whip egg whites to soft peaks, then begin slowly beating in powdered sugar and vanilla until the egg whites have formed stiff peaks. Fold one tablespoon of the beaten egg whites into the key lime custard mixture. This will lighten up the filling and help the custard set. 

Pour the key lime mixture into the pie crust then gently mound the meringue on top of the custard filling. Bake in the same 400°F oven for about 10 minutes, or until the peaks of the meringue turn dark brown. Cool for one hour before chilling in the refrigerator for another hour before serving. Serve chilled with a curl of lime zest and a slice of lime on each plate.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Longboat Key and South Florida - A Culinary Journey

A Culinary Journey to Longboat Key, Florida
Feb 22, 2011 - Mar 4, 2011

will be touring the Longboat Key area along Florida's Gulf of Mexico coast from Feb 22, 2011 to Mar 4, 2011. Join me online each day as we journey through Longboat Key, Anna Maria Island and Sarasota, capturing the cultural and culinary pulse of this little corner of paradise, renowned for it's sugar-sand beaches, fabulous cuisine, stunning Spanish style architecture and thriving theatre arts scene.

Our Culinary Journey will take us from Longboat Key to St Armand's Circle and across Sarasota Bay for an evening with Giuliano Hazan, famed cookbook author and son of Italian culinary icon, Marcella Hazan, for a hands-on cooking class with Giuliano in his own home. Then we'll journey from Anna Maria Island, home to West Florida's Top Restaurant, Beach Bistro, owned by Canadian Sean Murphy, then south to Naples, as we explore the diverse culinary influences and regional ingredients of 'Floribbean' cuisine, including 
unique regional specialties such as swamp cabbage, conch chowder and key lime pie. So grab your appetite as we head south for ten days of sun, sand and culinary snooping!

Food is our common ground, a universal experience.
 – James Beard

Monday, February 21, 2011

Linguine with White Clam Sauce

Full of wonderful flavours from the sea, nothing beats a seductive bowl of Linguine alle Vongole. An essential part of Neapolitan cuisine, this fragrant dish can be prepared two ways: rosso, with tomatoes or bianco, without. This simple, elegant and tasty recipe pairs fresh clams and a simple sauce with a special secret ingredient — anchovies — which add a hidden depth of flavour to this wonderfully satisfying dish. A classic Italian pasta, this is one of my favourite meals to make anytime of the year.

Linguine with White Clam Sauce
Serves 6

5 dozen fresh clams
4 tbsp olive oil
4 tbsp butter
6 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
3 anchovies, minced (optional)
1/2 tsp hot pepper flakes
2 small cans of clams, saving the clam juice
1/2 cup white wine or vermouth
Juice of one lemon
2 tsp dried oregano
1/2 cup italian parsley, finely chopped; plus extra for garnish
1 tsp salt and fresh ground pepper to taste
1 pound linguine

Let the clams drain in cold water for at least one hour. In a large pan that will accommodate the cooked pasta, heat olive oil and butter on medium heat. Add the garlic, anchovies and red pepper flakes and cook until just golden, about 3 to 5 minutes. Add the clam juice, white wine, lemon juice, oregano, parsley, salt and pepper to taste. Simmer, partially covered, for 8-10 minutes. The sauce can be made ahead to this point.

Place the hard shell clams in a large pot with 1-inch of water and cover. Set on med-high heat and steam for about 6-10 minutes, or until the clams open. Discard the stubborn ones that remain closed. Shuck half of the cooked clams and place in a small bowl with the 2 cans of canned clams. Set aside. Reserve the remaining clams in their shells in the pot and cover. Meanwhile, reheat the sauce if you have allowed it to cool, adding the shucked and canned clams to the sauce and heat gently. 

Bring a large pot of water to boil, and add 1 tsp of salt. Cook the linguine until tender but still firm. Drain the linguine and toss it with the sauce, mixing well to combine. Serve the linguine in individual wide rim bowls, and garnish each with 6 cooked clam shells and a sprinkle of chopped parsley. Serve with some lovely crusty garlic bread and a nice chilled bottle of white wine.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Jean's Famous Butter Tarts

The best baker I know is Jean White. She'd knock my block off if I mentioned her age, so let's just say that she's a Great Grandmother. My point being: she's been baking a lot longer than many of us and has learned a few things in her time, like how to make the World's Best Butter Tarts. But that's only half the story, because Jean also makes the World's Best Pastry. I don't know how she does it. Her pastry always rolls out perfectly, and her baking is consistently light, flaky and mouth wateringly good. So I figure, why knock ourselves out when we can borrow shamelessly from Jean's arsenal of baking secrets. Just don't let her know I told you.

Jean's Famous Butter Tarts
Makes 12 tarts

¼ cup unsalted butter, melted
½ cup brown sugar
½ cup corn syrup
1 large egg
1 tsp white vinegar
1 tsp vanilla
½ cup walnuts, chopped
salt to taste

Preheat oven to 400°F. In a large bowl, mix the butter with brown sugar and corn syrup. Add the egg, vinegar and vanilla, and stir well. Line 12 muffin cups with pastry. Sprinkle some walnuts in each cup and then spoon filling overtop. Bake for about 5 minutes. Reduce temperature to 350°F and continue baking for another 8-10 minutes. These are delicious on their own, and even better with a scoop of ice cream. They also freeze very well. Just store in an airtight container until needed.

Jean's Secret Pastry Recipe
Makes 3 2-crust pies

5¾ cups all-purpose flour
3 tbsp brown sugar
1 tsp salt
½ tsp baking powder
1 lb Tenderflake lard
1 large egg, beaten
2 tbsp white vinegar
¾ cup cold water

Mix the first five ingredients together well, until it's in crumbs. Add the egg, vinegar and water together in a small bowl and combine together. Then add it to the flour mixture and mix together with your hands until it becomes a smooth ball. Divide the dough into 3 round portions and wrap in saran warp and then aluminum foil. This is enough for three 2-crust pies, and it also freezes really well — so you can always have some on hand.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Salmon in Scallion Ginger Sauce

We all feel the need every once in a while to shed a few pounds. It's nice when that doesn't mean sacrificing flavour. This recipe for Salmon in Ginger & Scallion Sauce has a wonderful asian kick, it's easy to prepare, and it's low in calories. Served along side a shimmering mound of sugar snap peas and big green salad, going low-carb becomes a beautiful thing.

Salmon in Ginger & Scallion Sauce
Serves 2

1/3 cup dry vermouth
3 tbsp soy sauce
2 tsp sesame oil
1/4 cup finely chopped green onion
1 tsp freshly grated ginger
1 tsp finely chopped garlic
2 salmon filets (or orange roughy)

Preheat the oven to 400°F. Mix the vermouth, soy sauce, sesame oil, onion, ginger and garlic in a bowl. Place the salmon in an ovenproof casserole and drizzle the marinade over the salmon. Let marinate about 30 minutes. Bake 15-20 minutes until the fish is just cooked through. Serve on warmed dinner plates, spooning the lovely sauce over the fish.

Sugar Snap Peas with Mint
Serves 2

1 1/2 cup sugar snap peas
1 tsp butter
2 tbsp mint, thinly sliced
1 tbsp orange zest

Steam sugar snap peas until al dente. Place in a warmed serving dish and toss with butter, mint and orange zest. 

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Diane's Iceberg Salad with Blue Cheese Dressing

Each summer, friends of ours host an Annual Bridge Tournament Weekend at their beautiful cottage in Muskoka. The event becomes an opportunity to show off both our Bridge play and our culinary muscle, by showcasing some of our new recipes that need to be both delicious and easy to make — who wants to spend their time in the kitchen when the gorgeous summer weather of Lake Muskoka beckon us all outdoors? 

My wonderful friend Diane, who is also a great cook, made a memorable salad that weekend, using deceptively simple wedges of iceberg lettuce and homemade blue cheese dressing. Although some people disdain iceberg lettuce, they haven't tasted Diane's salad. A delicious retro steakhouse-style starter, the salad was cool and refreshing with a rich zingy dressing. Being a vegetarian, the addition of the salty bacon lardons were mine, however the flavour and presentation of Diane's salad could not have been more impressive. And that was just the first course!

Diane's Iceberg Salad with Blue Cheese Dressing
Serves 4

4 large plum tomatoes
4 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
2 tsp finely chopped thyme
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
2 cups of brioche, cut into 3/4-inch cubes
1/4 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup sour cream or Greek yoghurt
4 oz blue cheese, crumbled
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice or white wine vinegar
1 tsp dijon mustard
3 tbsp snipped chives
1/2 lb thickly sliced bacon, cut into 1/2-inch lardons
1 medium head of iceberg lettuce, cut into 4 wedges

Preheat the oven to 275°F. Arrange the tomatoes, halved and cut side up, on a nonstick baking sheet and drizzle with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Sprinkle with 1 teaspoon of the chopped thyme and season with salt and pepper. Roast for about 2 1/2 hours, or until the tomatoes are very tender and slightly shrunken. Transfer the tomatoes to a plate and let cool.

Meanwhile, toss the brioche cubes with 2 tbsp of olive oil and a sprinkling of thyme, then spread on a small baking sheet and toast for about 15 minutes, or until golden and crisp. Let the croutons cool.

In a small bowl, add the blue cheese with 1/2 tsp salt and a grinding of black pepper, and mash with a fork until slightly creamy. Stir in the sour cream, buttermilk, lemon juice and 1 tbsp of chives, and mix well. Cover and refrigerate until well chilled. Note: the dressing can be made up to 3 days ahead and refrigerated.

In a medium skillet, cook the bacon over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until browned and slightly crisp, 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer to paper towels to drain.

To serve, place iceberg wedges on a large platter, and scatter the tomato halves, croutons and bacon pieces on top. Dribble with blue cheese dressing on top of the wedges and garnish liberally with chives.

COOK'S NOTE:  Don't panic! The roasted tomatoes, croutons, lardons and dressing can all be made ahead of time and stored in air tight containers, making this salad as easy as chopping a head of lettuce. Ergo, perfect cottage fare.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Carpaccio Cipriani

While in Venice earlier this year, I had the opportunity to dine at The Cipriani, which is nestled across the Venetian lagoon in it's own private paradise, and where guests are transported to the hotel by private launch from St Mark's Square. It's understandable why the Cip is considered to be one of the finest hotels in the world. The restaurant is also recognized as one of Italy's finest. 
While waiting for our appetizers, a smart looking waiter approached our table with a fancy wheeled cart, and began to prepare one of their signature dishes — Carpaccio Cipriani. With great élan, he carved the beef, mixed the sauce and presented the final creation to us for our approval. We nodded our appreciation, but apologized that we had not in fact ordered the Carpaccio. Not missing a beat, he consulted his notes and realizing that the table behind us had ordered the dish, with a wink and a smile, turned on his heel and smartly presented the Carpaccio to the other table. No one was any the wiser. 

Carpaccio Cipriani
Serves 2

7 oz. filet of beef
3 tbsp mayonnaise
1 tbsp mik
1 tsp fresh lmon juice
Worcestershire sauce
freshly ground pepper
1 cup arugula
Parmesan curls for garnish
1 lemon, cut in half
Fresh basil leaves

Wrap the beef filet in plastic wrap and place in the freezer to let harden 1 hour. In a small bowl, stir the mayonnaise, milk and lemon juice into a thick cream and season with Worcestershire sauce, salt and pepper. Cut the frozen filet into wafer thin slices and lay them in concentric circles on 2 chilled serving plates. Use a spoon to drizzle the mayonnaise sauce over the beef in a random pattern. Place a handful of arugula in the centre of each of the plates and using a vegetable peeler, shave some parmesan curls for garnish and finish with a wedge of lemon on the side.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Cream of Wild Mushroom Soup with Madeira

The intoxicating combination of Madeira, cream and mixed mushrooms is one of the truly tantalizing aromas. A small portion of this wonderfully rich and satisfying potion will be a welcome treat, especially in the depth of these cold winter months. The soft earthiness of the mushrooms and pungent porcini, enhanced with the toasty nuttiness of the Madeira, makes this Wild Mushroom Soup one of my absolute favourite starters. I also find that keeping a bottle of Madeira wine on hand is always a good idea — a small slug or two will transform any soup or sauce in moments.

Cream of Wild Mushroom Soup with Madeira
Serves 6-8

3 oz. dried porcini mushrooms, chanterelles or shitake
3/4 cup Madeira wine
8 tbsp butter
2 cups yellow onions, finely chopped
2 lb fresh crimini mushrooms
4 cups chicken stock
2 cups heavy cream
salt and pepper 
chives for garnish

Soak the dried porcini mushrooms in Madeira wine for an hour. Melt the butter in a large soup pot, then add the onions and cook over a low heat until they are tender and begin to brown, about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Trim the stems from the fresh mushrooms and discard. Wipe the caps with a mushroom brush or paper towel, then slice thinly. Add the caps to the soup pot, season with salt and pepper to taste, and cook over low heat uncovered, stirring frequently, for 15 minutes. Remove and set aside some of the mushrooms for garnish.

With a slotted spoon, carefully remove the porcini from the Madeira, letting any sediment settle before pouring the liquid in to the pot. Add the chicken stock and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover and simmer 45 minutes until the mushrooms are soft and tender.

Strain the soup, transferring the solids to a food processor with 1 cup of liquid, and purée until smooth. Return the purée to the soup pot along with the remaining liquid and set over medium heat. Taste and correct seasoning, thinning the soup with cream as desired, then heat until warmed through.

Serve in warmed serving bowls and garnish with the leftover mushrooms, a swirl of cream and some chives.

Friday, February 11, 2011

A Truly Romantic Valentine Dinner: As Time Goes By

If aphrodisiacs were good enough for the Gods, then they're good enough for us modern mortals. With Valentine’s Day around the corner, liberate your libido with an aphrodisiac-fueled cocktail hour, starting with a platter of raw oysters, a chilled bottle of Champagne and your favourite crooner playing softly in the background. 

Then turn up the heat in the romance department with Spaghettini con Fruitti di Mare. Like all foods of the sea, the seafood’s aphrodisiacal history can be traced back to the ancient Greeks who believed their goddess of love, Aphrodite, was born of the sea and that all ocean creatures were her playthings in the game of love. That does it for me. Seafood Pasta it is!

And for the grand finale, Molten Chocolate Lava Cake, rich in all those 'feel good' endorphins — nature's natural high — and it tastes sinfully good! So get the pasta sauce prepped and the Chocolate Lava Cake ready to go, pop in your Casablanca DVD and get ready for the Ultimate TV Dinner...because, as all true romantics know, and you must remember this...

A kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh.
The fundamental things apply 
As time goes by.

And when two lovers woo 
They still say, "I love you." 
On that you can rely 
No matter what the future brings 
As time goes by.

Moonlight and love songs 
Never out of date. 
Hearts full of passion 
Jealousy and hate. 
Woman needs man 
And man must have his mate 
That no one can deny.

It's still the same old story 
A fight for love and glory 
A case of do or die. 
The world will always welcome lovers 
As time goes by.

Oh yes, the world will always welcome lovers 
As time goes by.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Halong Bay Green Papaya Salad with Poached Prawns

Green Papaya Salad with Poached Prawns

This refreshing salad was served on board The Violet, our Vietnamese junk that sailed through the beautiful islands of Halong Bay. The prawns were caught by the local floating fishing village which also supplied all the wonderful fresh fish and seafood that we enjoyed during our two-day cruise.

Halong Bay Fishing Village

The Violet, anchored in Halong Bay

Green Papaya Salad with Poached Prawns
Serves 4 as an appetizer salad

4 large prawns, poached
1 green papaya, coarsely grated (about 3 cups)
1 small carrot, coarsely grated
1/2 daikon, coarsely grated
2 tbsp mint leaves, minced

3 tbsp fresh lime juice
3 tbsp fish sauce
1 tbsp sugar
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsp white sesame seeds

chives and parsley for garnish

Combine the dressing ingredients in a large bowl and mix until the sugar has dissolved. Then add the papaya, carrot, daikon and mint leaves and toss well to combine. Transfer salad to 4 serving plates. On a cutting board, shell and devein the prawns, splitting them up to the tail but leaving the tail intact, so they look like four wishbones. Tuck the tail around and through the middle of each prawn and set two half prawns on each salad. Garnish with some chives and a sprig of parsley and serve with chopsticks.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Chef Galli's Luang Prabang Tiger Prawns

Chef Galli's Tiger Prawns Fricassée

One of the Chef Gilles Galli's signature dishes at Luang Prabang's gorgeous Phou Savanh Restaurant, was his Tiger Prawns Fricassée with Sticky Rice and Thai Basil. This curry-style dish, in which prawns are cooked in a spicy coconut milk sauce, gains lovely flavour from the addition of fragrant thai basil, which is quite different from the Italian sweet basil we normally get in Toronto. 

The Luang Prabang Market

Luang Prabang has a bustling market each day of the week, as most families purchase fresh ingredients twice a day — first thing in the morning and later in the afternoon — so the market caters to every desire, from prepared Lao sausages, banana fritters, and fresh noodles to local fish, seafood and fabulous fresh Lao herbs and vegetables. Also known for their weaving skills, the Lao market sells all kinds of baskets at unbelievable prices — I bought a beautiful handwoven bamboo sticky rice steamer for just $1!

A Lao favourite — Sai Gork — sausage made from coarsely chopped fatty pork 
seasoned with lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, shallots, 
cilantro, chillies, garlic, salt and fish sauce.

Tiger Prawns Fricassée with Wok Vegetables, Sticky Rice and Thai Basil
Serves 4

16 large fresh tiger prawns
1/2 cup coconut cream
2 tbsp Red Curry Paste
1 cup coconut milk
1/2 tbsp fish sauce or to taste
1 tbsp dark brown sugar
Thai basil to garnish
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tsp garlic, minced
1 cup carrots, julienned
1 cup broccoli stals, julienned
1/4 cup, ginger, julienned
2 cups Thai sticky rice (you'll need a bamboo basket and steamer)

For the sticky rice:
Soak the sticky rice in enough water to cover the rice for at least an hour and even overnight. Take your steamer and put water in the bottom pot and cover the bamboo steamer basket with cheese cloth. Pour the sticky rice on the cheesecloth, and then cover with a lid. Put it on the stove on medium high heat. The sticky rice should take about a 20 minutes of steaming to cook and will become translucent when done. Set aside.

For the Prawns:
Peel and devein the prawns, discarding the heads and tails. Heat the coconut cream in a large saucepan or wok over medium heat. Add the curry paste and cook, stirring constantly until fragrant, about 5 minutes. Add the prawns and coconut milk, and bring genty to a boil. Simmer over heat for about 8-10 minutes, or until prawns are just cooked. While the prawns are cooking, stir-fry the carrots, broccoli, ginger and garlic in a small sautée pan with 1 tbsp of vegetable oil, until fragrant and firm to the bite, about 3-5 minutes. Set aside. Season the prawns to taste, with some fish sauce and brown sugar. 

To serve: 
Take the sticky rice and form small round puck-shapes, about 3" diameter, and place on warmed serving plates. Place a small dollop of vegetables on top of each rice cake, then top with 2 prawns on each cake. Spoon the sauce over top each serving, then garnish with shreds of thai basil.

COOK'S NOTE: To make Sticky Rice, you really need to invest in a bamboo steamer and pot, which I've seen in Chinatown and also online at one of my favourite sites 

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Traditional Khmer Cuisine at The Sugar Palm

While staying in Siem Reap, we wanted to experience traditional Khmer cuisine and were told by our guide Ta to try The Sugar Palm, a five minute Tuk-Tuk ride from our hotel. Warm and inviting, The Sugar Palm occupies the second floor of a classic Khmer style wooden house with subdued lighting, high vaulted ceilings, and most of the seating on a wonderfully breezy wraparound balcony. The ambiance was terrific, with the bar, furniture and dining beds made of dark sugar palm, and the staff walking around barefoot serving authentic Khmer food. One of The Sugar Palm's signature dishes, and a Cambodian classic, is Amok, a steamed fish curry which they served souffle-style. Light and delicious, there is no dish prettier than this delicate fish mousse steamed in a coconut shell or banana leaf bowl, and none so fragrant with its coconut milk, lemongrass, Kaffir lime leaf, and ginger. This dish is a national treasure, and it’s easy to see why. 

Amok Trei (Coconut Fish Curry)
Serves 2

Kroeung (curry paste):
2 dried chillies, soaked
3 cloves garlic
1 shallot
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
3 stalks of lemongrass, trimmed to the tender middle bit and finely sliced
1 tbsp fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
1 tsp shrimp paste
1 tsp lime zest
1 tsp salt
2 red chilies, finely minced

3/4 lb firm white fish, such as cod, diced
1 tbsp fish sauce
2 cups coconut milk
1 tsp shrimp paste
1 egg, beaten

Serving Bowl Options:
4 banana leaves and toothpicks to make bowls
or 2 Coconut Shell halves
or 2 Ramekins

1 tbsp Coconut cream for garnish 
4 shredded kaffir lime leaves
1 tbsp red pepper, julienned

To make the curry paste (Kroeung), pound all the ingredients together with a mortar and pestle or food processor, until all the ingredients have broken down and are quite smooth. 

In a separate bowl, mash the shrimp paste into the coconut milk until it has dissolved, then add the egg and fish sauce. Then add the Kroeung and the fish and mix well.

To make the banana leaf bowls, soften the leaves by dipping them briefly in boiling water, so they're soft and don't crack when being shaped. Then cut them into 9-10" circles, using a plate as a guide. Place two leaves together and mark a square in the middle of the circle — this will be the bottom of the bowl. Then fold each side of the banana leaf, securing the corner with a cocktail stick or staple, until all four sides are pinned and upright. To be extra sure the banana bowls don't leak, you could add a layer of aluminum foil around the outside, them remove it for the final presentation. Or simply use a small ramekin or fresh coconut half to steam the fish curry.

Finally, pour the fish mixture into the banana leaf bowls, ramekins or coconut shells, topping with coconut cream, and steam for about 20 minutes until the mixture is moist and slightly wobbly, but set by the egg. Garnish with some shredded lime leaves and sliced red peppers, and serve with Jasmine rice. Enjoy!

Monday, February 7, 2011

A Taste of Lao Cuisine in Luang Prabang

While we were in Laos, we stayed at the picturesque La Residence Phou Vao in Luang Prabang. It's beautiful outdoor Phou Savanh Restaurant served traditional Lao cuisine fused with inventive French touches, courtesy of the inspired panache of Executive Chef Gilles Galli. One of the staples of Lao cuisine is sticky rice, and popular herbs such as galangal, limes, lemongrass, coriander and of course hot chilis. Lao food has many influences, such as Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese and French, but the former royal seat of Luang Prabang is considered to be the country's culinary heart. Chef Galli prepares a dish called Khao Lam to accompany his Coriander and Garlic Infused Chicken on Lemongrass Skewers, which is sticky rice cooked in coconut milk and dotted with black beans, and served in bamboo, however it's sometimes served in coconut shell too. Each of the dishes we enjoyed were a treat for the eyes and the environment, with each meal artfully presented using materials found in nature, from banana leaves, coconut shells, hand made wooden bowl and rustic wood or stone platters. And eating under a blanket of stars amid dozens of glowing lanterns, made dining at Phou Savanh a memorable experience. 

Coriander and Garlic Infused Grilled Chicken on 
Lemongrass Skewers with "Khao Lam"

Coriander and Garlic Infused Grilled Chicken on Lemongrass Skewers
Serves 8

2 tbsp finely chopped ginger 
2 tbsp finely chopped coriander 
4  garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
1 lemongrass stalk, white part only, finely chopped
4 lemongrass stalks, cut in half and pared with sharp points
2 kg chicken thighs and/or breasts
1 cup light soy sauce
1 tbsp freshly ground black pepper
2 tsp white sugar

Pound ginger, coriander, garlic and lemongrass with a mortar and pestle, or process in a small food processor, until smooth, then transfer to a large bowl. Add remaining ingredients, mix well to coat chicken, cover and refrigerate overnight.

Preheat barbecue to low heat. Remove chicken from marinade, thread onto lemongrass skewers and grill, turning occasionally, until cooked through about 10-15 minutes. Serve hot with Spicy Peanut Sauce and Khao Lam sticky rice.

Spicy Peanut Sauce

1 tbsp peanut oil
1 tbp red curry paste
1/4 cup coconut milk
1/4 cup chicken stock
3 tbsp fish sauce
2 tbsp lime juice
2 tbsp brown sugar
1 tbsp chili sauce 
2 tbsp peanut butter
1 tbsp sesame oil

Heat oil in a saucepan. Add the red curry paste and saute until fragrant. Add the remaining ingredients and simmer to thicken, about 2-3 minutes. Serve with Chicken on Lemongrass Skewers.

Khao Lam (Sticky Rice and Black Bean) - Wrapped in Banana Leaf
Serves 8

2 cups Thai sticky rice, soaked in water for 3 hours or overnight, then drained
3/4 cups coconut milk
1/4 cup water
2 tbsp granulated sugar
1 tsp salt
1 cup canned black beans, drained
8 8"×8" pieces of banana leaves (or parchment paper)

Preheat oven to 350°F. Stir sticky rice, coconut milk, water, sugar and salt in a large pan over medium heat. Stir until all coconut milk is absorbed. Stir in black beans and fold gently to mix. 

Put equal amounts of the sticky rice mixture onto 8 banana leaves. Form the rice into a cylinder about 6″ long and lay it in the center of the leaf so that you have about 1 inch left on either end. Fold the banana leaf in half around the rice, then roll it around the cylinder. Fold in both ends and secure them with a toothpick, poking down and then up, or you can twist the ends and tie them. Each bundle will make a round tube about 6 inches long and 1 to 1 1/2 inches in diameter. 

Grill for 5 minutes on each side until the sticky rice is translucent and cooked, or bake in the oven for 10 minutes. For a dramatic presentation, serve the rice hot in the banana leaves and let your guests unwrap the little parcels.