Thursday, May 31, 2012

Summer Cream of Asparagus Soup

With the impressive bounty of fresh asparagus in the markets these days, it seems like the perfect time to make a rich and delicious, silky smooth Cream of Asparagus Soup. Fabulous served either warm or chilled, this gorgeous recipe is bright and full flavoured with a base of sautéed leeks, butter and asparagus simmered in chicken stock until the vegetables are soft and cooked through. Puréed with some light cream and finished with a tumble of sautéed croutons, fresh dill and a swirl of cream and olive oil, this rich and velvety Asparagus Soup tastes as good as it looks.

Summer Cream of Asparagus Soup
Serves 8

4 bundles green asparagus, trimmed
2 leeks, washed and trimmed
8 tbsp butter
4 cups vegetable or chicken stock
2 tbsp light cream, plus more for garnish
2 tbsp olive oil, plus more for garnish

2 tbsp fresh dill, chopped
1/2 tsp herbes de Provence
4 slices of bread, cut into bite-size pieces for croutons

Cut the asparagus into 1-inch lengths. Halve the leek lengthwise and cut into 1/2-inch pieces. Melt the butter in a large saucepan and add the leek and asparagus. Sauté for 3 minutes, until the vegetables are starting to soften. Add the stock and bring to the boil. Simmer for 10 minutes, until the asparagus is soft and cooked through.

Blend the soup in a food processor or with a hand blender, until smooth. Season to taste with sea salt and black pepper and return to the pan. Add the double cream and warm through. Meanwhile, sauté the pieces of bread in the olive oil for about 5 minutes. Season with salt, pepper and herbes de Provence.

Serve the soup in warmed soup bowls if eating warm, or leave to cool if serving chilled. Garnish the soup with a tumble of croutons, chopped dill and a drizzle of cream. Finish with a swirl of olive oil and serve.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Bamboo Club Thai Spicy Noodles

The first time I ever had Pad Thai was at The Bamboo, famous for its exotic world beat music and fabulous Asian/Caribbean cuisine. The cornerstone of Toronto's funky Queen West scene through the 1980s and 1990s, The Bamboo showcased cutting-edge reggae, funk, R&B, Latin, jazz and soul, and cranked out signature Caribbean, Indonesian and Thai dishes that kept the 'Boo' at the top of virtually every 'best-place-to-eat' list in the city from the day it opened. 

An old black and white photo of the venerable Bamboo Club

It was the hottest place to be. The music was loud and the place was usually packed. The food was new and exciting, and the atmosphere was laid-back with a decidedly Third World feel. It all worked. One of the cool things was that nothing in the club was new. The lime-green wrought-iron front gates came from a wrecking company, the banquette seating was from the Drake Hotel, toilets were bought for $50 from a pinball parlour that was going under and the bar was salvaged from an Irish social club in Buffalo. 

There was another challenge though — the club couldn't have a liquor license unless it served food, so two veteran chefs were brought in — Vera Khan handled the Caribbean fare, while Wandee Young did the Thai cooking. Their cuisine is now legendary. Rumour had it that whenever David Bowie was in town, he had to have the BamBoo's Ka Kai Soup and Thai Spicy Noodles. In fact, anyone who was a fan of the Bamboo can immediately rhyme off their favourite dishes and reminisce about the unforgettable meals served on the tropical outdoor patio or in the funky Treetop Lounge — dishes like Gado Gado, Chicken Satays with Peanut sauce and Thai Cold Spring Rolls.  

The fabulous Bamboo Club cookbook

Thankfully, Vera Khan's and Wandee Young's treasured recipes were published in the 1997 cookbook, The BamBoo Cooks, illustrated by the enormously talented Barbara Klunder, who also designed the Boo's funky logo, menus, posters and story-high murals for the club. Her graphic design defined the look for the club, just as the kitchen defined the flavours, and owners Richard O'Brian and Patti Habib defined the spirit. My special memories are spending hot summer nights with good friends, listening to The Sattalites, the Bamboo's regular nine-piece Reggae band, and enjoying Wandee Young's Thai Spicy Noodles. As Catherine O'Hara said in the cookbook's forward, "It was a great place to eat, dance, flirt and talk meaningfully until last call. It was an oasis, a loveboat, a desert isle, a Caribana float". Sadly the club closed in 2007, and I wish it was still around. There's never been a place like it. It was magic.

Thai Spicy Noodles
Serves 4
Recipe from The Bamboo Cooks Cookbook

1/3 package Thai Rice Noodles
3/4 cup vegetable oil
1 cake of tofu
1 lb deboned chicken breast, leg or thigh, cut into bite-size pieces
4 cloves garlic
8 black tiger shrimp (21/25), peeled and deveined, tails on
4 eggs
4 tbsp Thai fish sauce
4 tbsp fresh lime juice
4 tbsp tomato purée
2 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp dried chilies, for medium hot Pad Thai
1/2 cup peanuts, finely chopped
4 handfuls bean sprouts
3 green onions, cut into 1/2-inch diagonal pieces
fresh cilantro, chopped
lemon wedges, cucumber or watermelon slices, optional

Soak the rice noodles in cold water for at least 4 hours or overnight. Take 1/4 cup of the oil and heat in a frying pan until it's hot but not smoking. Fry the tofu for about 2 minutes on each side until golden. Drain on paper towels and let cool down. When it's cool, dice into cubes.

In a medium sized wok, heat the remaining oil until it's very hot. Add the chicken and garlic and stir constantly for 2 minutes. Add the shrimp and tofu, and stir for 1 minute.Add the eggs and stir fry constantly until the eggs are cooked. With the wok on high heat, add the drained noodles, and stir fry until they become limp and slightly translucent. Add the fish sauce, lime juice, tomato purée, sugar and chilies, stir frying for 3 minutes.

Add 1/4 cup of peanuts, the bean sprouts and green onions, and mix well for 2 minutes. Serve immediately with fresh cilantro, lemon wedges, cucumber or watermelon slices and garnish with remaining chopped peanuts. Add a few extra chilies for extra zingy Pad Thai!

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Coconut Shrimp with Chili Citrus Sauce

These crisp and tender Coconut Shrimp are absolutely delicious and couldn't be easier to prepare. A wonderful appetizer for an outdoor summer party, the shrimp are simply dipped in a tempura-style batter of rice flour, beer, coconut milk, sugar and spices and quickly flash fried until they're light, crispy and golden brown. I keep the tails on to make them easier for guests to hold onto as they plunge the Coconut Shrimp in the tangy Chili Citrus Sauce. For an truly impressive hors d'oeuvre, buy the largest fresh shrimp you can find — the meat will be more succulent and the contrast with the delicate flash-fried tempura coating will be divine.

Coconut Shrimp with Chili Citrus Sauce
Serves 4 with 5 shrimp each

20 jumbo shrimp, peeled and deveined with the tails left on
1 1/3 cup rice flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 cup pale beer or club soda
2 cups dry shredded sweetened coconut
1/4 cup coconut milk
2 tbsp sugar
1 tsp garlic
1 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp each, salt and pepper
3-4 cups vegetable oil

Chili Citrus Sauce:
1/4 cup orange marmalade
1 tbsp garlic chili sauce
1/8 tsp white pepper
1 tbsp fresh squeezed lime juice
zest of one lime

1 tbsp chives, diced

For the dipping sauce, combine the orange marmalade, chili sauce, white pepper, chives, lime juice and zest in a small saucepan, and heat over low heat just until warm. Let cool slightly, then pour into a small bowl, cover and refrigerate until serving.

Mix together the flour, baking powder, beer, coconut milk, sugar, and spices to make a loose batter. Pour the shredded coconut in a separate shallow bowl.

Pour 3 to 4 cups of vegetable oil in a wok or large pot. Once the oil reached temperature, dredge 1 shrimp into the batter, and then into the shredded coconut, pressing the coconut into the batter. Carefully, drop the shrimp into the oil and fry for 3 to 4 minutes, or until golden brown and just cooked through. Don't crowd the pan, but you should be able to cook 3 or 4 at a time. With a metal slotted spoon, carefully remove the shrimp and place on a paper towel-lined plate, and repeat with remaining shrimp.

Serve with the Citrus Chili Sauce and enjoy!

Monday, May 28, 2012

Lai Wah Heen: Elegant Dim Sum on Chestnut

Lai Wah Heen, which translates as 'luxurious meeting place,' lives up to its name, serving an upscale dim sum menu that's lauded as being the best in Toronto. Located in the Metropolitan Hotel on Chestnut Street in the city's original 'Chinatown', the bi-level restaurant is simple, stylish and elegant, with 12-foot ceilings, black granite stairs, and beige walls hung with lovely black-and-white Chinese calligraphy paintings.

Beautiful original Chinese calligraphic pieces adorn the walls at Lai Wah Heen

The mastermind behind Lai Wah Heen's perfect little Dim Sum treasures, is Dim sum chef Terence Chan. Terrence Chan is a Hong Kong native who got his start at Luk Yu in 1978, worked at the Peninsula Hotel, and won a prestigious dim sum contest before moving to Canada in the mid-eighties. He's been at Lai Wah Heen since its opening in 1995 and says his success lies in using the finest local ingredients and taking enormous care with presentation. 

Dim sum chef Terence Chan

Chan has studied with Western chefs to enhance his ability to make creations that are pleasing to the eye, and has learned to bring his unique panache to his innovative dumplings through a witty use of color and form to celebrate, say, his Steamed Lobster Dumpling autumn by forming orange-tinted rice noodle into the shape of a tiny little lobster complete with eyes and whiskers and filled with lobster, shrimp and finely diced vegetables flavoured with garlic and butter. And to accompany Lai Wah Heen's sumptuous Dim Sum are a selection of eight loose-leaf teas such as Dragon Well Longjin Green Tea, Monkey Picked Oolong Tea, Lychee Scented Red Tea and Jasmin Scented Silver Needles from Fujian, which is the tea we enjoyed as we looked over Chef Chan's menu.

A selection of eight Chinese loose leaf teas 

An elegant table setting

Lai Wah Heen Dim Sum menu

We started with the Peking Duck which is served in two courses. The whole duckling is fried until it's glistening, crisp and golden brown then carved and served with finely shredded scallion and cucumber on steamed rice crepes with sweet hoisin sauce. The second course is Crystal Fold, which is the wok-fried minced duckling meat served with assorted vegetables, fried noodles and wrapped in crispy fresh lettuce leaves.

The Belle of the Ball - shaved Peking Duck on pancakes

Crystal Fold with minced duck and noodles on a crisp lettuce leaf

We followed with a selection of Chef Chan's innovative Dim Sum, including his famous Steamed Lobster Dumpling, Crystal Shrimp Dumpling, Steamed Crabmeat Dumpling, Deep Fried Shrimp and Vegetable Spring Rolls and Siu Mai made with pork, shrimp and scallop topped with tobiko.

Steamed Lobster Dumpling

Crystal Shrimp Dumpling

Steamed Crabmeat Dumpling 

Siu Mai with Pork, Shrimp and Scallop with Tobiko

"Dim sum is getting better everywhere," Chan says. "This started in Hong Kong in the sixties and seventies and as people grew wealthier, they demanded higher quality. That's still going on today. As China gets richer, Chinese food grows and becomes more innovative. Dim sum is still going through an evolution, it's always changing and its high end is aiming higher and higher". 

Lai Wah Heen's Chinese New Year E-Fu Noodles

Serves 4

Eating long noodles for longevity is a must during Chinese New Year. At Lai Wah Heen in the Metropolitan Hotel, chef Ronny Lam offers these e-fu noodles with Chinese black mushrooms.

7-oz package e-fu noodles (fried and dried egg noodles)
3 Chinese black or shiitake mushrooms, stemmed, caps very thinly sliced
1 medium carrot, peeled, cut in matchsticks
10 snow peas, trimmed, cut in matchsticks
3 tbsp canola oil
1 cup chicken or vegetable broth
2 tsp oyster sauce or vegetarian stir-fry sauce
2 tsp soy sauce
2 tsp mushroom-flavoured dark soy sauce
1 tsp granulated sugar

In large wok or saucepan half-filled with boiling water on high heat, cook noodles, stirring and pushing under water, until they soften and thicken slightly about 60 to 90 seconds. Drain in colander. Let stand to dry well. Add several cups water to wok or saucepan. Bring to boil over high heat. Add mushrooms, carrots and snow peas. Cook 1 minute. Drain. Add oil to wok or large non-stick skillet. Heat over high. Add noodles in one clump. Cook, undisturbed 1 minute to brown bottom. Using spatula, carefully flip. Cook 1 minute. Transfer to plate. Add mushroom mixture to wok or skillet. Cook 30 seconds. Add stock, oyster sauce or vegetarian stir-fry sauce, soy sauce, mushroom soy sauce and sugar. It will quickly come to a boil. Add noodles. Cook, stirring and tossing with tongs or chopsticks, until noodles absorb most of the sauce, about 3 minutes. To serve, transfer noodle mixture to platter and drizzle with remaining sauce.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Lobster Salad with Avocado & Mango

This is without a doubt the best Lobster Salad that I've every tasted. A luscious combination of diced avocado, ripe mango, chopped yellow and red peppers and slivered scallions tossed in a light and flavourful lemony mayonnaise mixed with crunchy celery, minced shallots and chopped chives come together so deliciously, the succulent flavour of the fresh lobster positively shines. A well known chef generously gave me this fabulous Lobster Salad with Avocado & Mango recipe, after imploring him to divulge the secret ingredients. His original recipe made enough to serve about 200 people, so he kindly adjusted the quantities for a more intimate gathering, so now I can create my own sensational summertime Lobster Salad at home. Thank you VDG.

Lobster Salad with Avocado & Mango
Serves 4-6 

2/3 cup mayonnaise
1 tsp lemon zest
1 lemon, juiced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 shallot, finely chopped
1 stalk celery, finely diced
1 tbsp chives, finely chopped
1/4 cup each of yellow and red bell pepper, finely diced
1/4 cup of scallion, finely chopped
3 lobster tails cooked, about 1 pound lobster meat, chopped
1/2 cup ripe mangoes, diced
1/2 cup avocados, diced drizzled with lemon juice
Lemon slices, for garnish

In a small bowl, combine the mayonnaise, lemon zest, lemon juice, salt and pepper, shallot, celery, and chives in a bowl. Add the lobster meat to the mayonnaise mixture and combine the rest of the ingredients, cutting
 the avocados at the very last, when all ingredients are ready, to avoid it from discoloration. Check the seasoning and serve chilled.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Delux on Ossington: Mozo's French-Cuban Cuisine

One of the newer additions to the über-trendy Ossington strip is Delux, an understated yet stylish French-Cuban restaurant by Montreal-born owner and chef Corinna Mozo. Once the home of Sparrow Restaurant, the restaurant's been totally refurbished and now features compact leathers booths, cool lighting fixtures and a menu of brasserie delights, such as duck confit, house made terrine, Wellington County steak-frites and of course, Mozo's famous pressed Cubano sandwich filled with molasses-cured pork shoulder, ham, gruyère, onion and grainy mustard, all in perfect balance. 

The A-frame sign outside advertises Mozo's Franco-Cuban-inspired Bistro-style cuisine

A Montrealer with French-Canadian and Cuban roots, Mozo trained at the Stratford Chefs School before moving to the Boston to begin her career working for chefs like Lydia Shire and Susan Regis at Biba Restaurant. She later became chef at Chez Henri, which was named one of the top restaurants from both Esquire and Gourmet magazines, then opened Truc in Boston's historic South End. But she wanted her children to grow up in Canada, and Toronto seemed to meet both family and career requirements. For years, her brother had been urging her to keep an eye on Ossington, so when number 92 appeared in the listings, Mozo made the move. "I like being in a place that’s up-and-coming," she explains. "I opened Truc in Boston’s South End before it became gentrified and always enjoyed the varied clientele."

Chef Corinna Mozo, chef/owner of Delux on Ossington

White washed walls and industrial-chic interior

Here at Delux, as with so many new restaurants, the décor is deliberately shabby. The bare brick walls have been whitewashed, as have the ducts and pipes been laid bare across the ceiling. Mozo’s husband is a cabinetmaker, and they had fun with the space during Delux's six-month renovation, putting in a new maple floor and creating funky light fixtures made from bundles of unlit fluorescent tubes. It’s deliberately rough-and-tumble, which seems to suit the raw refreshing edge of the neighbourhood.

Bare brick walls, exposed pipes and funky light fixtures

A backlit art installation dominates one wall

A limited but solid menu

One of the best deals in the city is $1 oyster Tuesdays at Delux. Starting with a bottle of Muscadet Sur Lie Domaine des Cognettes from the Loire Valley — the perfect wine with oysters — we ordered three dozen of bodacious bivalves from Peacock Cove in New Brunswick, to start off the evening. Marked by their deep cupped shells, delicate meat, and high-salinity, the oysters arrived shucked and chilled over ice, and had a delicious clean bright finish. Delectable and a deal.

The first of our three dozen Peacock Cove oysters from New Brunswick

Served chilled over ice, the oysters had deep bowls with a sweet saline finish

Delux signature oyster condiments: Fresh grated horseradish and Crisp Apple Mignonette

Mozo’s classic bistro food is immediately appealing. Chef Mozo bakes her own bread daily, a dense white loaf that grills beautifully and accompanies many of the dishes, such as the large Charcuterie Plate we ordered to share, that came with House-Made Terrine, Chicken Liver Mousse, Duck Rilettes and cured pork sausages served with grainy Fleur de Dijon french mustard, crisp cornichons and a drizzle of honey. Wonderfully flavourful, the platter was a feast for the eyes. The Chicken Liver Mousse in particular was exceptional, silky smooth and lighter than air.

Delux Charcuterie Platter with chicken liver mousse, house made country terrine, duck rilettes and cured sausages served with grainy Fleur de Dijon, cornichons and a drizzle of honey

We also ordered an assortment of cheeses that included a perfectly ripe La Sauvagine, a delicious Quebecois cheese with a moist and supple rind and runny ivory middle. Accompanied by a tangy goat and mouth-tingling blue, the cheese board also featured smoked almonds, sliced green apples and some of Chef Mozo's toasted homemade Cuban bread, fresh and warm from the oven. Also, I can never resist a Fritto Misto di Mare, so we had to order the Friture of Tiny White Fish that arrived in a newspaper cone with a rich creamy remoulade and fresh sliced lemon. Garnished with crispy flash fred parsley, the friture was excellent.

The Delux Daily Cheese Board with three cheese, fruit, nuts and toast, 
including the exquisite La Sauvagine, a delicious Quebecois cheese 
with a moist and supple rind and runny ivory middle

Friture of Tiny White Fish with remoulade and fried capers

Warm and succulent, the white fish were lightly lated and highly addictive

No evening at Delux would be complete without Chef Mozo's made-to-order Warm Buttermilk Donuts rolled in cinnamon sugar and served with Chantilly Cream and sweet caramel flavoured Dulce de Leche. I had never had fresh warm donuts before, and they were sensational. Light and airy with a crisp sugary exterior, the final coup-de-grace was dipping them in the sweet cream and watching them disappear no sooner than they arrived. The birthday candle perched on top of the up-turned metal cup was a lovely touch, especially so for my friend, who was grateful that the staff didn't sing 'Happy Birthday', but we did, ever so quietly. Exhibiting a modicum of restraint, we did resist Chef Mozo's gooey, baked-to-order chocolate chip cookies which come with a white Russian! Although there's always next time.

Warm Buttermilk Donuts rolled in cinnamon sugar and serve with 
Chantilly Cream and sweet Dulce de Leche

Apart from their full French-Cuban fusion brunch, lunch and dinner menus, Delux has been canning their own preserves recently, with pickled raisins, jalapenos, and even candied walnuts available for purchase. "Although the original plan was to combine French and Cuban cuisine," she says, "I can't cook Cuban during Cana­dian winters. I just can't." However, other Latin-influenced dishes are sure to creep onto the menu now that summer is here.

The new range of Delux homemade preserves and candied nuts

Delux Cuban Sandwich
Serves 4 
Recipe courtesy of Corinna Mozo, chef/owner Delux

Pork Brine:

16 cups water
1-1/2 cups kosher salt
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1 tbsp whole black peppercorns
3 cloves garlic
1 whole pork shoulder, about 5 lb

1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup molasses
1/2 cup grainy mustard
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Chipotle Mayonnaise:
1 cup mayonnaise
1 tbsp lime juice
1/4 cup finely chopped red onion
2 tbsp chopped cilantro
2 tbsp finely chopped chipotle peppers

8 slices good quality, home-style white bread
2 tbsp grainy mustard
8 oz sliced gruyère cheese
4 oz sliced Black Forest ham
1 lb slow-roasted pork, sliced (see below)
1/4 cup finely chopped cornichons or dill pickles
1/4 cup finely chopped red onion
1/4 cup softened butter

Combine water, salt, brown sugar, peppercorns and garlic in a large pot over high heat and bring to boil to dissolve salt and sugar. Cool completely. Place pork in brine and refrigerate. Brine for 8 hours or overnight.

Combine brown sugar, molasses and grainy mustard to make glaze. Preheat oven to 300°F.

Remove pork from brine and season lightly with salt and pepper. Cover with glaze and place pork in a foil-lined roasting pan. Place in the oven and cook for 3 hours or until very tender.

Combine mayonnaise, lime juice, red onion, cilantro and chipotle peppers to make chipotle mayonnaise.

To assemble sandwich, spread two slices of bread with a thin layer of chipotle mayonnaise, then add grainy mustard to one slice. Place a slice of cheese on each slice, then sliced ham and sliced pork. Sprinkle with cornichons and red onion, then carefully close the sandwich. Butter the outside of the sandwich and place in a hot panini press or grill pan with a weighted lid and grill until bread is toasted and cheese is oozing. Repeat with remaining sandwich ingredients.

COOK'S NOTE: Corinna Mozo's favourite cooking tool is a Panini press. "We use it all the time at the restaurant. It's good for anything - if you have bread and some cheese, you can throw in whatever's in the fridge."

Delux Cod Fritters
Serves 4 as an appetizer
Recipe courtesy of Corinna Mozo, chef/owner Delux

6 oz dried salted cod
1 egg, beaten
1/8 cup minced white onion
1 clove minced garlic
1/2 jalapeño pepper
2 scallions, cut in thin rounds
3 tbsp parsley, finely chopped
1/2 cup - 2/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
Salt and pepper, if necessary
Canola oil for frying
1/2 cup sour cream, for garnish (optional)

Soak cod overnight in cold water, making sure to change the water three times. Drain cod and place in saucepan with enough fresh water to cover. Bring to a boil and simmer until cod is soft, about 10 min. Transfer cod to a plate to cool and reserve 1/2 cup of its cooking liquid.

Finely chop the fish by hand or in a food processor. Add egg to cod with the onion, garlic, jalapeño, scallion, parsley and cooking liquid. Beat in enough flour to obtain a thick paste, stir in the baking powder and salt and pepper if needed.

Fry fritters in hot oil 350°F until golden brown on all sides, about 2 minutes total. Work in batches, do not crowd the pan. Drain on paper towels and serve with a small bowl of sour cream for dipping.

French Toast With Bananas & Dulce de Leche
Serves 4
Recipe courtesy of Corinna Mozo, chef/owner Delux

1 cup homogenized milk
1 cup whipping cream

1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise, seeds scraped
5 large egg yolks
7 tbsp granulated sugar
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
8 slices of 3/4-inch thick stale white or egg bread
3 ripe bananas, peeled, sliced 1/4-inch thick
1/4 cup dulce de leche
2 tsp unsalted butter
Sweetened lightly whipped cream for serving
Maple syrup for serving

In saucepan, combine milk, cream, vanilla bean and seeds. Place over medium-high heat. Bring to simmer, remove from heat and let stand 30 minutes. Remove and discard vanilla bean.

In mixing bowl, whisk together yolks, sugar and cinnamon until slightly thickened. Slowly whisk in cream mixture. Cool, cover and refrigerate 2 hours, preferably overnight.

Pour custard into large baking pan. Soak bread 3 minutes per side.

In medium fry pan, heat bananas and dulce de leche over low heat, stirring to coat evenly.

Heat large non-stick fry pan over medium heat until hot. Swirl 1 tsp of butter into pan. Working 4 at a time, cook soaked bread until golden brown, about 3 minutes per side. Transfer to baking sheet; keep warm in preheated 275°F  oven. Repeat with remaining 1 tsp oil and remaining bread.

Serve with warm bananas, whipped cream and maple syrup.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Ahi Tuna Tartare Napoleon: A Towering Feast

One of the prettiest and most refreshing salads to make during the hot summer months is this delicious and beautifully plated Tuna Tartare Napoleon. By simply rethinking the arrangement of ingredients into a vertical architectural style, can transform a humble salad from ordinary to absolutely senstaional. Although you can use fancy ring molds to create the towers, I cheat and use empty frozen juice concentrate cans with both ends cut off, however any empty can will do. The layers of salad ingredients are gently spooned into the mold, and using a round object that is slightly narrower than the cylinder, like a tall glass or plastic squeeze bottle, the contents are gently tamped down onto the serving plate, the form is removed, and the final creation presented!

In this recipe, the ingredients are also superb. The sensual, smooth texture of sashimi-grade ahi tuna, silky mango and creamy avocado are complimented by tangy Wasabi Crème Fraîche and fresh picked ginger, which add a delectable Asian influence and extra zing to this spectacular salad. You can also make this dish with fresh cooked swordfish or crab, for friends who aren't as comfortable with the notion of raw fish — they all taste great and look "mahvelous"! 

Ahi Tuna Tartare Napoleon
Serves 4

1/2 lb sashimi-grade tuna or salmon, cut in 1/4-inch dice
2 ripe avocados, skinned, seeded and cut in 1/4-inch dice
2 ripe mangos, skinned, seeded and cut in 1/4-inch dice
1 english cucumber
1 tbsp fresh pickled ginger, minced
1 tbsp minced chives, chopped
1 cup of watercress or micro greens, for garnish
1 cup mango juice

1 package artisanal sesame flatbreads

Wasabi Crème Fraîche:
1/2 tsp wasabi
1/2 cup crème fraîche or sour cream

Using a sharp knife or mandoline, slice the cucumber into thin slices. Slightly overlapping each slice, arrange the slices in a 5 or 6-inch circle in the center of each serving plate. This will form the base of each stack. Repeat on each plate.

To make the Wasabi Crème Fraîche, combine the two ingredients, cover and chill.

To make the Mango Coulis, set the mango juice in a small pot over medium heat and reduce until thick and syrupy, about 15-20 minutes. Once reduced, set aside to cool.

In a medium bowl, combine the tuna and chives and season with salt and fresh cracked black pepper, to taste.

To create each napoleon, set the mold in the centre of the cucumber round. Spoon the first layer of the salad — the chopped avocado — into the mold, then spoon in the next layer — the chopped mango — then a tablespoon of Wasabi Crème Fraîche and teaspoon of pickled ginger. Finish with a couple of spoonfuls of chopped tuna, and gently tamp down to help the stack hold its shape after unmolding. Remove the mold from the salad, lifting it straight up to keep the stack intact. Repeat for the additional napoleons.

To serve, top each salad with a sprig or two of fresh watercress or seasonal microgreens and garnish the plate with a few dots of Mango Coulis and Wasabi Crème Fraîche. Serve with decorative sesame flatbreads or lavosh to help spoon up the last remains of the salad.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Vertical: Giacomo Pasquini's Flavours of the Adriatic

Tucked away in the heart of Toronto's Financial District is Vertical, a sleek and sophisticated restaurant specializing in the deliciously diverse regional cuisine of Italy and the Mediterranean. Partners Joe Alberti and Gary Chivers launched Vertical Restaurant & Bar in 2005 on the mezzanine level of First Canadian Place, and has since become a beacon for Bay Street power execs who flock to its stylish bar for after work drinks, as well as its prime outdoor mezzanine patio + lounge which overlooks the parkette and waterfall of First Canadian Place facing King Street — a hidden gem for those in the area. But the real lure here is chef Giacomo Pasquini’s glorious ingredient-driven Italian cuisine.

Vertical's summer outdoor patio - a hidden gem

Born and raised along the Adriatic coast in the Le Marche region of central Italy, Chef Pasquini learned a passion for seafood at an early age. Working with  some of the top chefs of Italy and a handful of Michelin-starred restaurants throughout Italy, including Palazzo Sasso in gorgeous Ravello, where my husband and I had lunch one afternoon on our honeymoon almost ten years ago. True to his heart, Vertical's menu reflects his passion for simple exquisitely prepared Italian cuisine with dishes such as whole grilled fish, fresh homemade pasta and seasonal specialties inspired by Italy's focus on simplicity and freshness with a menu prepared with a lighter, healthier style typical of Mediterranean influenced cuisine.

Executive Chef Giacomo Pasquini (R) with his stellar kitchen crew

Vertical's  elegant and sophisticated dining room showcases Chef Pasquini's outstanding Italian cuisine. Designed by Toronto-based agency Mackay|Wong, the interior of warm chocolate coloured woods, gauzy curtains, modern Riedel steamware and contemporary table settings, create a stylish and inviting space with a mood of relaxed intimacy with highlights of rich colour and plush seating. Modern yet unpretentious, both the interior design and culinary artistry of Chef Pasquini are simpatico.

Warm chocolate coloured woods, gauzy curtains and elegant table settings 
make Vertical an elegant and inviting dining destination

We started our evening at Vertical with a lovely 2009 bottle of Ceregio Sangiovese from Emilia-Romagna, which was also one of twenty wines available by the glass or in unique individual 9-ounce carafe called a 'quartino'. Chef Pasquini's inspiring dinner menu was composed into small shared appetizers to whet the appetite such as Warm Black Olives, Prosciutto di Parma, Crostini with goat cheese and ramps, and Burata with a zucchini, eggplant and mint caponota with pine nuts and crostini. We were drawn to the bowl of Warm Black Olives which were flavour-infused with balsamic and herbed olive oil, and served with warm homemade focaccia. The little Niçoise and Italian Gaeta olives were transformed — an explosion of soothing sweet and pungent flavours. An old Italian tradition, the warm olives were the perfect aperitivi to start our meal.

Warm black olives with a balsamic and herbed oil with focaccia

The selection of fabulous starters, homemade pasta, risotto, fish and meats on Chef Pasquini's menu, all sounded so delicious and authentically Italian, it was very difficult to choose among all the wonderful dishes. An ardent fan of fish and seafood, I had to order the Warm Calamari with smoked dates and clams in a squid ink dressing. Perfectly cooked, the calamari was soft and delicate, and the squid ink dressing, rich, thick and delicious with a subtle saltiness that provided the perfect counterpoint to this gift from the sea. We also also ordered the Beet Salad with Monforte Toscano cheese, mustard greens and hazelnuts, which was a marriage of red, yellow and candy cane beets, served both as roasted and raw spirals in a light dressing.

Pan Fried Calamari with clams, smoked dates in a squid ink dressing

Beet Salad with Monforte Toscano cheese, mustard greens and hazelnuts

As entrées we selected the special Risotto which changes daily, based on the freshest seasonal ingredients. Tonight it was a wonderfully flavourful Asparagus Risotto with shallots and pea shoots, as well as a Whole Grilled Branzino served with locally grown cherry tomatoes and sautéed fennel with a tomato confit and caper sauce. I'm always drawn to fresh whole grilled fish on a menu, if it's featured. Chef Pasquini's grilled Branzino was excellent. Moist and flakey, the flesh was perfectly cooked and housed in a crisp salty skin. The kitchen even magically de-boned the fish which made not having to navigate the tiny bones a welcome surprise.

Asparagus Risotto

Whole Branzini topped with tomato confit and capers, braised fennel 
and a drizzle of lemon sauce

During our meal I asked our server Sarah (aka Sam), if Chef Pasquini was in the kitchen that evening. When she said that he was, I asked if would be possible to meet him, if he had a moment — which most chef definitely do not. Within a few minutes, Chef Giacomo Pasquini arrived at our table, smiling with hand outstretched. Having just returned from two weeks in Umbria, I felt a compatriot spirit with this young and good looking Adriatic Marchigian. The spirit of his cuisine is empathetic with the exceptional cuisine we experienced throughout Italy, and he was pleased when I mentioned the authenticity and inspired flavours of his cuisine. We compared experiences and our love of Italy's phenomenal food, extraordinary culture, inspiring landscapes and warm-hearted people. I may have been gushing, but my admiration of our meal was straight from the heart. He was also moved by my sincerity and even offered to lend us his apartment in Le Marche the next time we were in Italy! Great food, a lovely inviting dining room, professional courteous service and a young talented chef just a few blocks from home — will I be back? Absolutamente!