Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Perfect Gin Martini

Everyone has a favourite cocktail. Mine is a Gin Martini, straight up, dry, two olives. Some people, by their own choice drink Vodka Martinis, even James Bond, but I won't hold it against them. It's just that I find Gin has more flavour. I've tried lots of different Martinis in my time, but my favourite is definitely one made with Hendrick's. Handcrafted in Scotland, Hendrick's makes small batch gin using an infusion of cucumber and rose petals, and even comes in a wonderful squat dark heavy bottle, like something you might find in an old apothecary shop. 

The bottle has great character and is sealed with a cork. How many gins do that? I love it. The Hendrick's website and marketing campaign is also wonderfully imaginative, delightfully witty and worth checking out, even if it's just for a giggle.

It's no secret — all gins are infused with different botanicals to give the alcohol its unique flavours and aromas. Bombay Sapphire is spicy. Tanqueray No. 10 is citrusy (my favourite for years), but Hendrick's is just smoother and more delicate. Curiously, the company recommends garnishing their Martinis with a slice of cucumber, rather than an olive or a twist. I wouldn't have believed it, had I not tried it, or been 'instructed' to do so. 

The last time I was in London, my step-son Harry, took me to Milk & Honey, a Cocktail Bar and Member's Only Club (after 11pm) in Soho. It's styled after a prohibition era 'speak-easy'. There is no sign, just a big black door with a small sliding eye-level opening where you have to give a secret password. That night it was, "Reservations for Hillier. Three." With that the door opens and you're admitted into a dimly lit, classically decorated Capone-esque lounge. Milk & Honey's niche is their incredible drinks menu, an adventure for any cocktail or martini connoisseur. 

Of course, I ordered a Hendrick's Gin Martini, but when I ordered it with an olive, our server pulled up a chair, sat down, and proceeded to explain to me why I didn't really want an olive — I wanted a slice of cucumber instead "luv". Who was I to argue? To my great surprise, he was right. It was better. So if you're a Gin Martini drinker and you haven't tried Hendrick's before, give it a try. As the ads say, "Avoid the obvious. Seek the marvelous." Shucks, even the odd Royal is known to take a tipple of Hendrick's now and then!

Hendrick's Cucumber Martini
Makes 1 helluva martini

1 oz. Hendrick's Gin
3/4 oz. dry vermouth
cucumber slices

Stir vermouth and Hendrick's Gin over ice cubes in a mixing glass. Strain into a martini glass, and garnish with a cucumber slice.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Vanilla Panna Cotta with Blackberry Compote

Panna Cotta is a classic Italian dessert that literally means 'cooked cream'. Wonderfully light and delicious, panna cotta is one of the easiest desserts to make and also one of the most impressive. There are many variations to the recipe, but it's generally made by simmering together some cream, sugar and vanilla, and then mixing in some dissolved gelatin. The panna cotta is then chilled until set. That's it.

Simple ingredients: Cream, sugar, vanilla and gelatin

Panna cotta, a custard-like pudding with a rich velvety texture, takes just minutes to prepare, and is the perfect dessert for dinner parties as it can be made ahead of time and look great served as individual puddings. I made my Vanilla Panna Cotta using a vanilla pod rather than vanilla extract. The pod is simply sliced open and the aromatic seeds scooped out, which not only adds tiny flecks of vanilla to the pudding, but also gives it a lovely rich fragrance. 

The mixture is simmered with the vanilla

Often served with a berry coulis, panna cotta works brilliantly as a creamy base for all kinds of summer fruits: blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, peaches or cherries. You can also infuse the cream with Chambord macerated blackberries or raspberries, and make a gloriously Pink Panna Cotta. Similarly, by adding some grated white or dark chocolate to the cream, you can create a decadent Chocolate Panna Cotta. It can actually be flavoured with any herb, spice or liqueur — the variations are endless. One thing is for certain, panna cotta is so simple, light and delicious, it will quickly become an indispensable part of your culinary repertoire. 

Vanilla Panna Cotta
Serves 4

It's been said that Panna Cotta is so delicate that, if you have angels coming for dinner, Panna Cotta is the dolce to serve!

2 cups half-and-half cream
1/4 cup sugar

1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
 or 1 tsp of vanilla extract
1 packet powdered gelatin (about 2 1/4 tsp)

3 tbsp cold water

Heat the heavy cream and sugar in a saucepan. Once the sugar is dissolved, remove from heat and stir in the vanilla extract. If using a vanilla bean, scrape the seeds from the bean into the cream and add the bean pod. Cover, and let infuse for 30 minutes. Remove the bean then rewarm the mixture before continuing.

Lightly oil four small ramekins with a neutral-tasting oil.

Sprinkle the gelatin over the cold water in a medium-sized bowl and let stand 5 to 10 minutes.

Place the gelatin into the very warm Panna Cotta mixture and stir until the gelatin is completely dissolved.

Divide the Panna Cotta mixture into the prepared cups, then chill them until firm, which will take two to four hours, or let them chill overnight. If you’re pressed for time, pour the Panna Cotta mixture into wine goblets and serve them in the glasses, without unmolding. You can also make them up to two days ahead but keep them well-covered and chilled.

Gently pull the edges away on the each Panna Cotta and unmold each onto a serving plate, and garnish as desired.

Fruit Compote:
3 cups blackberries or blueberries
1/4 cup zinfandel or other fruity dry red wine
3 tbsp granulated sugar
4 mint sprigs

To prepare compote, place 1 cup of berries, wine, and granulated sugar in a food processor, and process until smooth. Strain the mixture through a fine sieve into a medium saucepan, and discard solids. Bring mixture to a boil over medium-high heat, and cook for 1 minute. Remove from heat. Add remaining berries. Let cool completely before serving.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Belgian Beer Braised Chicken with Fava Beans

I have never cooked with beer before, let alone Belgian beer, but it actually makes a lot of sense. Beer has much in common with the food we eat: beer contains grain (barley), herbs (hops), water and yeast. Wine contains grapes. As with any liquid, when you cook with beer, the liquid reduces which magnifies its flavours, so it makes sense to use a good quality beer. This recipe for Belgian Beer Braised Chicken Stew with Spring Vegetables is surprisingly light and delicate, with just a subtle hint of caramelized malt in the background.

I like to use Duvel Belgian Beer in the Braised Chicken Stew

First the chicken is marinated in an aromatic mixture of roasted anise seeds, saffron, sweet paprika, cayenne, garlic, lemon juice and olive oil, and chilled for at least an hour. The wonderfully fragrant saffron coloured chicken is then seasoned with salt and pepper, browned on both sides, and added to a medley of mixed wild mushrooms, scallions, thyme and bay leaves which have been gently sauteed in butter. 

Cremini and Shitake mushrooms sauteed with scallions and thyme

A small bottle of Belgian beer is added to the chicken stew, and simmers over a low heat for about half an hour. Just before serving, the fava beans, green peas and cream are added to the casserole, creating a rich and delicious sauce that infuses the whole dish. The Braised Chicken Stew is lovely served on a large platter over a bed of Tagliolini or Tagliatelle noodles, with the fava, pea and mushroom sauce poured overtop, and garnished with a little parsley. 

Belgian Beer Braised Chicken Stew with Fava Beans and Peas
Serves 8

2 tbsp anise seeds
4 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
1/2 tsp loosely packed saffron threads
2 tsp sweet paprika
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup plus 2 tbsp pure olive oil
1 whole chicken, skinned and cut up into pieces or 8 skinless chicken thighs
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup shelled fava beans, fresh or frozen
1/2 cup fresh peas, fresh or frozen
4 tbsp unsalted butter
1 lb cremini and shitake mushrooms, sliced
8 scallions, thinly sliced
4 thyme sprigs
1 tbsp all-purpose flour
One small bottle Belgian beer (330ml Duvel)
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley 
Tagliolini noodles (optional)

In a small skillet, toast the anise seeds over moderate heat, shaking the skillet, until fragrant, about 3 minutes. Let the anise seeds cool slightly, then crush with the side of a knife.

In a mini food processor, combine the toasted anise seeds with the chopped garlic, saffron, paprika and cayenne. Add the lemon juice and puree. Transfer the mixture to a large, shallow bowl and stir in 1/2 cup of the olive oil. Add the chicken pieces and turn to coat with the marinade. Refrigerate for 1 hour.

Meanwhile, bring a medium saucepan of water to a boil. Add salt and the fava beans and cook for 1 minute. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the fava beans to a small bowl and let cool slightly. Add the peas to the boiling water and cook until tender. If you are using frozen peas, cook 2 minutes. If using fresh, cook 5 to 6 minutes; drain. Peel the fava beans and add to the peas. Set aside.

Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet or enameled cast-iron casserole. Remove the chicken from the marinade, shaking off the excess. Season the chicken with salt and black pepper and cook over moderately high heat, turning occasionally, until browned, about 10 minutes. Transfer the chicken pieces to a platter.

Wipe out the casserole, add the butter and heat until melted. Add the sliced mushrooms, sliced scallions and thyme and cook over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until the liquid has evaporated and the mushrooms are browned, about 8 minutes. Sprinkle the flour over the mushrooms and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Slowly stir in the beer and bring to a boil, scraping up any browned bits on the bottom of the casserole. The sauce will foam up a little with the carbonation from the beer.

Return the chicken pieces to the casserole and season with salt and black pepper. Cover and simmer over low heat until the chicken is tender and cooked through, about 25 minutes. Add the cream, fava beans and peas, increase the heat to moderate and cook uncovered until the sauce has reduced slightly, about 5 minutes. Discard the thyme sprigs. Serve the chicken stew on a large platter with the sauce poured overtop, and garnish with the parsley. I serve this dish with some Tagliolini noodles, which is lovely with the rich sauce. And of  course, a nice bottle of chilled Pinot Grigio.

Guerrieri Rizzardi Veneto Pinot Grigio is available at the LCBO

Monday, March 28, 2011

Split Pea Soup with Ham Hock

A classic Split Pea Soup with Ham is the perfect winter dish. Hearty, warm and delicious, it's easy to prepare, fun to make and it's also good for you. Made with dried split peas and cooked with an intensely flavourful, smokey ham hock, this hearty and satisfying soup can also be made as a 'day-after' soup, prepared with the bone and trimmings from a roast ham. For those of us who generally cook for two, it's just as convenient to buy a ham hock, but be sure to get your butcher to cut in half, as it will be easier to simmer in the soup later.

My very handsome ham hock. The hock is the joint between the foot 
of the hog and the upper thigh.

I must admit that I love the look of ham hocks, and sometimes make this soup just so that I can buy one from the market. They may look like a tough cut, but when cooked slowly, they release a wonderful smoky flavour that is undeniably delicious, and gives the broth it's great flavour. Made with an impossibly short list of ingredients, this recipe for Split Pea Soup is great for lunch or dinner, it freezes well, and like many hearty soups or stews, it tastes even better the following day.

Split Yellow Pea Soup with Ham Hock
6 to 8 

1/4 cup olive oil
1 large onion, finely diced
2 celery stalks, finely diced
2 carrots, finely diced
2 1/2 cups split peas
1 1/2 lb smoked ham hock
8 cups chicken stock 

4 sprigs fresh thyme
3 bay leaves
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a large saucepan, saute onion, celery and carrots over medium-high heat, for about 5 minutes, until the onion is softened but not browned. Add the peas, ham hock, thyme and bay leaves and cover with stock. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and cook gently for 1 hour. 

Remove the thyme, bay leaves and ham hock. Process the soup in a blender, food processor, until smooth, then return to a clean pan. I use an immersion blender, so I can make the soup in one pot. Once the ham hock has cooled, pull the meat off the bone and shred into small pieces. Add the ham to the soup and heat through gently, seasoning to taste with salt and pepper.

Garnish with dollop of sour cream, crème fraiche or greek yoghurt, and finish with a sprig of fresh parsley.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Scaramouche: In the Kitchen with Keith Froggett

Chef Keith Froggett adding the finishing touches to his Roasted Sea Scallops 
with Meyer Lemon Beurre Blanc

Scaramouche has graciously posted a number of Keith Froggett's recipes on their website, enabling home cooks to sample some of the restaurant's more popular culinary creations. The Globe and Mail also featured some of Chef Froggett's recipes in a series of articles way back in 2009. Still savouring my dinner at Scaramouche from earlier this week, I went treasure hunting for some delicious recipes from their acclaimed kitchen. One dish Chef Froggett has featured on his seasonal menu was Roasted Sea Scallops with Spicy Meyer Lemon Beurre Blanc, an explosion of flavour and colour, grilled a gorgeous golden brown and topped with lemon rind, chives and chilies.

Roasted sea scallops with beurre blanc sauce

The restaurant's seasonal approach to their menu highlights the absolute best locally grown produce, and give these fresh ingredients a starring role in the recipes that they create. Chef Froggett's elegant Wild Pacific Halibut with Spring Vegetable Navarin is an homage to Springtime, which is just what we want after a long chilly season of hearty fare. As Keith Froggett says, “In March, I’m thinking of wild leeks, asparagus and fava beans but they’re not here yet! It’s still very much winter here. This dish represents the rich colours, textures and flavours the colder months offer with a few spring ingredients taken from warmer climates." For lighter fare, you'll want to try Keith Froggett's paper thin Beef Carpaccio with Raw Asparagus, Blood Orange, Fennel, Lemon And Hazelnut Oil, a fabulous recipe that celebrates good beef, great flavours and spectacular presentation. Light and delicious, I can't think of a better way to begin this Scaramouche-inspired meal, except to thank Chef Froggett for being so generous in sharing these much sought-after recipes.

Roasted Sea Scallops with Spicy Meyer Lemon, Chive & Ginger Beurre Blanc
by Chef Keith Froggett
Sauce serves 10-12

2 shallots, finely diced
5 tsp white wine vinegar
5 tsp Meyer lemon juice
10 tsp dry white wine
10 tsp 35-per-cent cream
1 cup unsalted butter, chilled and diced
1 thumb-sized piece of fresh ginger, peeled and finely diced
1 Meyer lemon rind, finely diced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Fresh lemon juice
Freshly sliced chives
Fresh red chili pepper, finely diced
Vegetable oil
5 oz. fresh sea scallops per person, at room temperature

Place the shallots, vinegar, Meyer lemon juice and wine into a stainless-steel sauce pan. Boil over high heat until almost dry. Add the cream, return to a boil and lower heat slightly.

Start to whisk in the butter in 5 or 6 increments, letting the sauce boil gently between each addition and after the last. Remove from heat and con tinue whisking for a moment longer. Add the ginger and lemon rind, to taste. Correct the season ing with salt, pepper and lemon juice.

Keep the sauce in a warm place until ready to serve, finishing with the chives and chili pepper just prior to serving.

To roast the scallops, pre heat the oven to 475°F. Heat a thick-bottomed, oven proof frying pan over high heat; add a little vegetable oil. Season the scallops with salt and pepper and place them in the pan (if cooking a large number, use two pans). Put the pan in the oven for 3 to 5 minutes until the scallops are just beginning to go firm.

Remove the pan and check the under side of the scallops to see if they are golden brown. If not, place the pan over a high heat to colour the scallops.

Arrange scallops on a serving plate, golden side up, and pour a little of the sauce over them, serving the remaining sauce on the side. You can serve these scallops with some fresh asparagus, for a lovely springtime treat.

Roasted Wild Pacific Halibut with Spring Vegetable Navarin
by Chef Keith Froggett
Serves 4

Unlike its green counterpart, white asparagus has a tough, bitter peel that must be removed prior to cooking. To blanch fava beans, put them in boiling salted water for 30 seconds, drain and rinse under cold water. Then peel off the tough outer skin.

White asparagus:
2 tbsp lemon juice
2 tbsp unsalted butter
1 tbsp kosher salt
8 large spears white asparagus, peeled

4 5-ounce Pacific wild halibut fillets, skin on, at room temperature
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 tbsp vegetable oil

4 oz. wild leeks, cleaned and trimmed
4 large spears green asparagus
2 oz. cleaned and trimmed morels 
½ cup shelled, blanched and peeled fava beans
¼ cup shelled garden peas
2 tbsp chopped chives

2 large spears white asparagus, peeled
2 large spears green asparagus
Extra virgin olive oil for drizzling
Lemon for squeezing

Combine 8 cups water, lemon juice, butter and salt in a pot over high heat and bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium, add white asparagus and poach for 5 to 8 minutes or until just tender. Remove asparagus and set aside, reserving poaching liquid.

Preheat oven to 500°F.

Season halibut with salt and pepper. Heat vegetable oil in an ovenproof frying pan over high heat. Place halibut in pan, skin side up, then place pan in the oven and bake about 8 minutes or until fish is opaque and cooked through.

While fish is in the oven, return pot of poaching liquid to medium-high heat and bring to simmer. Add leeks, green asparagus and morels and simmer for 2 minutes or until almost tender. Add fava beans, peas and reserved white asparagus and cook another minute or until vegetables are warmed through. Drain vegetables, toss with chives and season with salt and pepper to taste. Divide vegetables among serving bowls.

Remove skin from halibut and season with salt and pepper. Place halibut, golden side up, on top of vegetables. Use a mandolin to shave raw asparagus over each portion.

Finish with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and a squeeze of lemon.

Carpaccio With Raw Asparagus, Blood Orange, Fennel, Lemon And Hazelnut Oil
by Chef Keith Froggett
Serves 4

12 oz very fresh, centre cut beef filet
1/3 cup hazelnut oil
1 small firm fennel bulb
Maldon salt and freshly ground pepper
1 small head frisee separated into small pieces
8 large asparagus tips, about 4 inches long, cut into thin long slices
2 Italian blood oranges, segmented
1/2 cup toasted, coarsely crushed hazelnuts
2 tbsp lemon juice
4 oz Parmesan cheese

Trim filet of any surface discoloration, wrap and chill well for 1 hour.

Cut filet into 1/4 inch-thick slices and brush lightly with hazelnut oil.

Place 2 slices of filet between two sheets of plastic wrap. Working from the centre gently pound the filet evenly using a flat mallet or back of a pot, to a thickness of about 1/8 inch. 

Transfer to an individual serving plate, cover tightly with fresh plastic pushing it against the meat to remove air. Refrigerate. Repeat with remaining slices. This can be done up to 5 hours in advance of serving.

Cut fennel into quarters, trim the core if necessary but leave enough to keep the layers together. Shave into thin slices with a mandoline, preferably, and drop into iced water to crisp, for no more than 5 minutes.

Remove plates from the refrigerator. Remove plastic and season the filet with salt and pepper. Add a few frisee leaves, fennel shavings, asparagus slices and orange segments to each plate, taking care not to overwhelm the beef.

Sprinkle with some of the hazelnuts, a little more salt, a drizzle of hazelnut oil and a squeeze of lemon juice. Shave the cheese over and serve immediately.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Keith Froggett's Scaramouche

Scaramouche Restaurant is now in its 30th year, an eternity in restaurant life, during which time it has maintained its unfaltering reputation as one of Canada's top restaurants. The restaurant’s longevity is a testimonial to the pursuit of quality and the gracious service guests receive when they dine at Scaramouche. Presided over by acclaimed Chef and co-owner, Keith Froggett, few other restaurants in the country have been showered with so many honours. Gourmet Magazine, while it was still around, declared Scaramouche the 'Top Restaurant in Canada'.

Scaramouche Chef and Co-Owner Keith Froggett

Chef Froggett landed the spot of executive chef, taking over from Jamie Kennedy, just eight years after beginning his apprenticeship at London’s Claridge’s Hotel. Today, Keith Froggett is unquestionably a Canadian culinary superstar, yet he does so quietly and without fanfare, avoiding the spotlight and preferring to let the quality of his food take centre stage. Using only the finest seasonally available ingredients, the menu overflows with Canadian ingredients, reflecting Froggett's belief that "less is more", and that "the finest ingredients classically combined result in a purity that transcends fads and fusion." His approach to building a menu is simple. “We buy quality ingredients and try to treat them with integrity.” 

Scaramouche's sleek grey dining room

Scaramouche's more casual Pasta Bar & Grill

Scaramouche is a sleek grey dining room with raised banquettes, and commands a powerful view of downtown Toronto. The more casual Scaramouche Pasta Bar & Grill, while it shares an entrance, wine list and dessert menu with the mother Scaramouche, is more casual and slightly less expensive. Plus, if you're lucky enough to get a table in the east corner of the room, as we did, you’ll be treated to the legendary Scaramouche view and outstanding contemporary french-inspired cuisine. We started with an Asian-inspired Yellowfin Tuna Tartare topped with a creamy quenelle of avocado salsa and crispy daikon shoestrings, dressed with a tangy lime, ginger, coriander and shiso leaf vinaigrette and garnished with a caramelized sweet soy chili sauce drizzle. The second starter was a dramatic Beet Carpaccio with Monforte Goat Cheese topped with arugula and a wonderful pickled celery root, and finished with a tarragon vinaigrette.

Beet Carpaccio with Monforte Goat Cheese

For the entrées, we decided on Fresh Ravioli with pulled chicken, parma ham and ricotta cheese topped with wilted bitter greens and a chicken jus, and also the Peppercorn Fettucine, a sensational spin on beef stroganoff, served as a bowl of black peppercorn fettuccine with juicy morsels of beef tenderloin, oyster mushrooms and pine nuts in a divine madeira cream sauce, with a gratinée roof of gruyère and bread crumbs. Divine.

Peppercorn Fettucine

Fresh Ravioli with Chicken, Parma Ham, Ricotta and Wilted Greens

The meal was absolutely wonderful, so when the Dessert Menu arrived, we had to defer Scaramouche's sweet temptations to another evening. Although the menu is constantly evolving, Froggett freely admits that by popular demand, one thing will always remain: “Our coconut cream pie,” he says. “We tried taking it off the menu, but it’s stuck, stuck, stuck.” So apparently will I. It had been quite a while since I was last at Scaramouche, but with food this good, and such excellent dinner companions, I hope to return very soon. The waiter wasn't so bad either...

One Benvenuto Place, Toronto (416) 961-8011

Scaramouche Famous Hummus
Courtesy of Scaramouche

Keith Froggett says that his humble but delicious hummus is one of the most requested recipes at Scaramouche. 

2 cups cooked chickpeas, drained
1 clove garlic, peeled
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
3 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tsp salt

Place ingredients in a food processor and blend until either chunky or silky smooth, depending on your preference. If you wish to use less oil but still want a smooth texture, replace some of the oil with the cooking liquid from the peas. Hummus should be refrigerated if made ahead of time. Return to room temperature prior to serving.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Origin Restaurant: Taste the Journey

Origin Chef de Cuisine Stephen Gonzales

One of the hottest new restaurants to hit the scene this past year in Toronto, is Origin, located at King Street East and Church, in the St Lawrence Market area. Inspired by executive chef and owner Claudio Aprile's desire to create a spontaneous high energy restaurant that serves ingredients at the height of the season, Origin was created and has been receiving rave reviews ever since. Aprile, also of Colborne Lane, has been called a food renegade, a mad scientist and a North American pioneer of molecular gastronomy, but one thing's for sure, at Origin, it's the food that matters most and it takes centre stage. The menu offers bold bright bites to suit any palate, featuring tapas, or small plates, that offer simple yet intricate culinary creations from around the world, ranging from Spanish, Portuguese and Thai to classic Canadian inspired dishes.

The open concept kitchen at Origin

For Origin's look and feel, Aprile collaborated with designers Jason Stroud and Angela Foot of Toronto's Stroudfoot to create an original looking space that was respectful of the building's history, being one of Toronto's oldest heritage properties. The designers used reclaimed wood from the Gooderham & Worts whiskey distillery to construct the bar and reclaimed barn board from the Cambridge area to create the flooring. Black banquettes line the wall in the lounge area with dining tables made from repurposed aluminum. The private dining area, dubbed The Andy Warhol Room, is crowned with a chandelier made from hundreds of little plastic toys. There's exposed brick, fabulous post industrial light fixtures and fabulous art pieces throughout the restaurant, but the centrepiece of the room, is the gleaming stainless-steel open kitchen of Chef de Cuisine Steve Gonzales. Trendy and high spirited, Origin is hip, cool and just the right side of retro. But the food is the highlight.

A sous chef prepares the finishing touches on our Cod Croquettes and Tostones with Guacamole

The menu which features bold bright bites to suit any appetite, is divided smartly into sections like Snacks and Sides (Smoked cod croquettes with saffron aioli; Tostones with guacamole; or Spicy Spanish fries with chorizo and manchego); Chilled (beet and goat cheese with picked red onion, walnuts and sherry dressing; smoked salmon with Russian potato salad; Bangkok beef salad with peanut, mango and crispy noodles) to Hot (Chinois duck wrap with pickled cucumber and hoisin; Chorizo with manchego rice with a poached egg, salsa verde and black olive tapenade; and Aprile's famous Miso glazed cod and soba noodles with a ginger vinaigrette and miso broth) plus an entire section dedicated to Mozzarella (Bufala Mozzarella and pear with rosemary; Fior di latte with mushrooms and truffle oil; and Burrata with pesto and romesca). They even have a smart little burger made with Cumbrae beef and topped with avocado, smoked mayonnaise and arugula. 

Smoked Cod Croquettes with Saffron Aioli

We ordered the Smoked Cod Croquettes with Saffron Aioli and the Tostones with Guacamole. The croquettes were lightly fried with a delicate centre of smokey cod, with a wonderfully fragrant and creamy saffron aioli which perfectly complimented the dish. 

Tostones with Guacamole

The tostones were in fact, smashed plantains that had been flattened, quickly panfried and served warm with a small serving of coarse bright green guacamole on the side. As an entrée, I ordered the Pan Seared Scallop with Jerusalem Artichoke Purée, Bacon and Rapini. 

Pan Seared Scallop with Jerusalem Artichoke Purée, Bacon and Rapini

The scallops were cooked perfectly. My husband ordered the Chorizo with Manchego Risotto and Poached Egg with Salsa Verde and Black Olive Tapenade, which was like a deconstructed Spanish breakfast. He loved it. The Chorizo was extraordinary. Delicate, smoky, and wonderfully smooth. As it turns out, Chef Stephen Gonzales has them custom made by a local producer just for Origin. All of their produce is purchased locally, whether at the St Lawrence market, or through local artisans specializing in unique fare, it's only specialty items that are purchased abroad. It's no wonder that the food is so exceptional. The servers are personal, attentive and informed, and the atmosphere upbeat and friendly. The food at Origin is absolutely delicious, full of flavour and reasonably priced. And with an extensive menu that is constantly updated, we will definitely be coming back for another culinary expedition without leaving our prime kitchen side seat — just ask for Table #24.

107-109 King Street East, Toronto (416) 603-8009

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Herb and Garlic Roasted Leg of Lamb

A plump 3-pound leg of lamb, boned and tied — infused with herbs and garlic

Sometimes I feel that I could become a Pescatarian, but I don't know if I could give up lamb, given that some of my favourite recipes feature my fluffy friend — Rack of Lamb Chermoula, Lamb Vindaloo, Braised Lamb Shanks and of course, my Herb and Garlic Roasted Leg of Lamb. This recipe is easy to prepare and is absolutely delicious. An aromatic mixture of chopped rosemary, thyme, parsley and garlic is stuffed into small pockets around the lamb, which is then pan seared to lock in all it's succulent flavour, and then topped with a savoury Dijon mustard coating. As the lamb roasts in the oven for about an hour, the herbs and mustard baste the leg creating a wonderfully flavoured crust, and infusing the kitchen with an intoxicating and unmistakable aroma of roast lamb.

Lovely fresh sugar snap peas

A quintessentially Tuscan meal, roast lamb served with sautéed white Cannellini Beans and rosemary is a classic and delicious combination. Accompanied with a lovely big bowl of Sugar Snap Peas sautéed in a little red onion and fresh mint, also makes this a perfect Easter dinner menu.

Rosemary, thyme, Italian parsley and garlic

Herb and Garlic Roasted Leg of Lamb
Serves 6-8

1 (3-pound) boneless leg of lamb, tied
1 tbsp chopped fresh rosemary
1 tbsp chopped fresh thyme
1 tbsp chopped fresh Italian parsley
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup Dijon mustard
2 tbsp olive oil

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Sprinkle lamb lightly on all sides with salt and pepper. Combine rosemary, thyme, parsley and garlic in a small bowl and mix to combine. Cut 1/2" deep slits in the thickest parts of the lamb and fill the cuts with the herb mixture, pressing the mixture in deep with your fingers.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high. Brown the lamb on all sides, about 3-5 minutes per side. Remove the lamb from the skillet and transfer to a roasting pan. Coat the lamb with mustard on all sides, then roast for about an hour, until the lamb reaches 135°F on a meat thermometer, for medium rare.

Remove from the oven and allow to rest 10-15 minutes before carving. Serve warm with Tuscan White Beans with Rosemary and Sugar Snap Peas with Mint. 

Gorgeous, fragrant and creamy Cannellini beans

Tuscan White Beans with Rosemary
Serves 4-6

3 tbsp olive oil
3 bay leaves
2 tsp dried rosemary, crushed
2 tsp fresh rosemary, whole leaves
2 15-ounce cans Cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
Fresh ground black pepper and Maldon salt

Heat oil, bay leaves and dried rosemary in a saucepan over medium heat, until the oil begins to bubble, about 1-2 minutes. Reduce the heat to low and cook 2 more minutes. Add the means and season with salt and pepper to taste. Cover and cook the beans through, about 5 minutes. Discard bay leaves. Sprinkle with fresh rosemary and a grinding of black pepper. Serve warm.

Trim the tops and bottoms off the sugar snap peas

Sugar Snap Peas with Mint
Serves 4-6

1 1/2 lb sugar snap peas, trimmed top and bottom
2 tbsp olive oil
3 tbsp red onion
1/2 cup fresh mint leaves, thinly sliced
1/2 tsp lemon zest
Fresh ground black pepper

Heat oil in a non stick skillet over medium. Add the red onion, reduce heat to medium-low and cook until softened, about 3 minutes. Stir in sugar snap peas. Increase heat to medium-high and stir-fry about 3 minutes. Stir in the mint and season with pepper. Remove from the heat, garnish with some lemon zest and serve immediately.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Christian's Apple Blossom Cake

There is nothing quite as intoxicating than the buttery aroma of a homemade cake hot from the oven. This moist, deep and delicious Apple Cake, made with fresh apples and cooked in a sweet buttery batter, is the perfect dessert anytime of the year. It also looks spectacular with the caramelized clusters of sliced apples bursting out of the top like little golden lotus blossoms. 

This weekend, my friend Chris made an outstanding Apple Blossom Cake, with the help of her personal sous-chef, her husband Mike! While Chris whisked the batter, Mike was put in charge of prepping the apples using a handy old fashioned apple slicer, guaranteed to produce perfect slices every time!

With apples peeled and sliced, the batter was then poured into a buttered springform pan, and the apple slices placed firmly into the batter in round groupings of eight — essentially reassembling the apples as they once were. A sprinkling of cinnamon over the apples, and the whole thing was baked in the oven for about an hour.

An additional layer of sweet eggy batter was poured over the cake once it came out of the oven, and it was baked again for another half an hour, creating a sweet fluffy crown to the top of the final Apple Blossom Cake. Still warm from the oven, Chris served her delicious cake as a special treat for her Piscean sous-chef, as we all gathered to celebrate his birthday in front of a roaring fire and under the watchful gaze of Saturday's super-moon! 

Apple Blossom Cake
Serves 8-10

Cake batter:
1/2 cup butter
2/3 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 3/4 cup flour
2 tsp baking powder
8-10 large hard apples

Cake topping:
1/2 cup butter
1 cup sugar
2 eggs

Preheat oven to 350°F.

To make the cake batter: cream the butter and sugar together. Add the eggs, and then the flour mixed with baking powder. Peel and core the apples, and cut into eighths. Spread the batter into a buttered springform pan, then stand the slices up in the batter in groups of 8, so that they resemble whole apples. Press each group firmly into the batter so that it 'squidges' nicely around the apples, then sprinkle with cinnamon. Bake for 1 hour.

To make the cake topping: cream the butter and sugar together, then add the eggs and blend well. Set aside.

Once the cake has baked for an hour, remove it from the even and pour the topping over the cake. Turn the oven down to 325°F and bake for another 30 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean and the top is golden brown and the apples are blossoming out of sweet buttery cake!

To serve, run a flat knife along the inside edge of the springform pan and gently release the sides, lifting it off carefully. Serve warm or at room temperature, and if you're feeling like you need some TLC, a dollop of creme fraiche might do the trick!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Swordfish with Basil Pesto and Poached Asparagus

In cooking, the simplest recipes often yield the best results. Here's a prime example: Basil, Garlic, Olive Oil. Classic. Fragrant. Delicious — Pesto — the green goddess of Italian cooking. This sauce goes with almost anything. It's a perfect food. Italian grannies used to make pesto by hand using a mortar and pestle, adding the basil leaves one at a time. Although this method can still be used, it's much easier to use a food processor. The key is not to over-process the ingredients or they become a completely homogenized emulsion or paste. I still use a processor if I'm in a hurry, and the results are very good.

However, there is a third way:
chopping all the ingredients by hand.
When you dress pasta with pesto that has been hand chopped, the miniscule flecks of basil separate from the olive oil in places, there's definition between the ingredients, and bright flavors pop in a way they don't when they've been blended into one. So, if you are serious about making perfect pesto, chopping the ingredients by hand will take twenty or thirty minutes, but the results will be worth it. Y
ou will need a good quality large sharp blade, like a Mezzaluna, or else the basil will turn dark. I always make a batch of pesto whenever I see bunches of fragrant fresh basil in the market. I can't resist. Even if I only need a leaf or two for a recipe, I'll use the remaining leaves to make pesto. It's a particularly great marinade on fresh fish. 

My favourite is Grilled Swordfish with Basil Pesto and Poached Asparagus which I sometimes serve with a little spaghettini. Cooked in the same water as the asparagus, the pasta is simply tossed with a tablespoon or two of pesto once it's cooked al dente, with a grinding of fresh pepper and a garnish of fresh lemon. So simple, so delicious, and it tastes like summertime. Which is kind of nice in the middle of March!

Quick Basil Pesto - using a processor
Makes 1 cup

1 large bunch of fresh basil leaves, leaves only
3/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan-Reggiano
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup pine nuts 
3 medium garlic cloves, minced
Maldon salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Combine the basil, garlic, and pine nuts in a food processor and pulse until coarsely chopped. Add 1/2 cup of the oil and process until fully incorporated and smooth. Season with salt and pepper. If using immediately, add all the remaining oil and pulse until smooth. Transfer the pesto to a large serving bowl and mix in the cheese. If freezing, transfer to an air-tight container and drizzle remaining oil over the top. It will last for up to 3 months. Thaw and stir in cheese.

Hand Chopped Basil Pesto - made with love!
Makes 1 cup

Adapted from 101 Cookbooks

1 large bunch of basil, leaves only, washed and dried
3 medium cloves of garlic
1 small handful of raw pine nuts
3/4 cup Parmesan, loosely packed and freshly grated
A few tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil

The technique is: chop a bit, add some ingredients, chop some more — instead of chopping everything all at once. This technique ensures a spectrum of cut sizes throughout the pesto contributing to the overall texture. 

So start chopping the garlic with about 1/3 of the basil leaves. Once this is loosely chopped add more basil, chop some more, add the rest of the basil, chop some more. Scrape and chop, gather and chop. At this point the basil and garlic should be a very fine mince. Add about half the pine nuts, chop. Add the rest of the pine nuts, chop. Add half of the Parmesan, chop. Then add the rest of the Parmesan, and chop. In the end you want a mince so fine that you can press all the ingredients into a basil 'cake'. Transfer the 'cake' to a small bowl, and cover it with a bit of olive oil. It doesn't take much, just a few tablespoons. You can set this aside or place it in the refrigerator until you're ready to use it. Just before serving give the pesto a quick stir to incorporate some of the oil into the basil, and enjoy!