Friday, June 29, 2012

Spiced Cauliflower Fritters with Lime Yogurt Sauce

These fabulous Spiced Cauliflower Fritters with Yogurt & Lime Sauce are a cross between a bhaji and a pakora, with bright Middle Eastern flavours that are bold, colourful and spicy. Adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi's first cookbook, Ottlenghi: The Cookbook, the recipes are based on some of their more iconic sweet and savoury dishes served at their restaurants which have sprung up across London, starting in Notting Hill in 2002, with branches now in Islington, Kesington and Belgravia.

Yotam Ottolenghi's first cookbook

Yotam and Sami’s inventive yet simple dishes are inspired by their respective childhoods in West and East Jerusalem, but rest on numerous other culinary traditions, ranging from North Africa to Lebanon, and Italy to California. The 140 original recipes in their cookbook cover everything from meat and fish main courses through to many healthy and quick salads, plus Ottolenghi's delectable cakes and breads with their trademark style: dishes that deliver sunshine on a plate, full of colour, texture, and bursting with bright flavours. 

Yotam Ottolenghi

A simple and delicious recipe, all you really need to do to make the Cauliflower Fritters is pre-cook the florets in salted water, drain them and as they cool, simply whisk everything else together, adding the cauliflower at the end, mashing it up a little bit with the whisk. The fritters can be made either large, as the cookbook suggests, or as small bite-size appetizers, which I prefer. Served with a bowl of tangy Lime Yogurt Sauce, these fritters are just one of the fabulous recipes to be found in Ottlenghi: The Cookbook. Soon to be released in October 2012, is their next cookbook, Jerusalem! I can hardly wait.

The upcoming and soon to be released cookbook

"Our feast is, literally, a feast of bold colours and generous gestures. It's driven by an unapologetic desire to celebrate food and its virtues, to display abundance in the same way a market stallholder does: show everything you've got and shout its praise whole heartedly."
Yotam Ottolenghi 

Spiced Cauliflower Fritters with Lime-Yogurt Sauce
Serves 4
Adapted from Ottolenghi The Cookbook

1 small cauliflower, about 1 cup, chopped into tiny florets
3/4 cup flour
3 tbsp chopped fresh coriander
1 clove garlic, chopped
2 spring onions, chopped
4 eggs
1 1/2 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp turmeric
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp black pepper
sunflower oil for frying

Lime-Yogurt Sauce:
3/4 cup Greek yogurt
2 tbsp finely chopped cilantro

zest and juice of one lime
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp honey
salt and black pepper

Put all the ingredients for the sauce in a small bowl and mix well. Taste and adjust lemon and salt as required. Place the cauliflower florets into a large pot of boiling salted water and cook for 15 minutes, or until they're very soft, then drain in a colander.

Meanwhile put the flour, chopped cilantro, garlic, onions, eggs and spices in a bowl and whisk together. When smooth add the hot cauliflower and whisk together to break down the cauliflower into the batter. Taste and add more salt if necessary.

Heat the oil in a large frying pan or wok. When the oil is hot, carefully add large or small spoonfuls of the batter to the oil, depending on the size of fritter you prefer. Fry in small batches, about 2 minutes per side, or until they're golden brown. Remove the fritters as they're done and drain on paper towel, keeping them warm in a low oven while you cook the rest. 
Serve warm or at room temperature with a bowl of Lime-Yogurt Sauce.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Red Beet Gnocchi with Basil Pesto

The colour is intense, the flavour earthy and sweet, and the texture like little pink pillows of pure heaven. This gorgeous recipe for Red Beet Gnocchi is the perfect marriage of vibrant, nutritionally-rich roasted red beets and the ultimate Italian comfort food — ricotta gnocchi. A traditional Florentine pasta, ricotta gnocchi is the lighter, hipper cousin to northern Italy's potato gnocchi, and cook up as soft, fluffy, delicate little lovelies. Gnocchi make a great base for any sauce, especially a simple Basil Pesto or rich Gorgonzola Cream Sauce, for an amazingly delicious ruby red feast for the palate, as well as the eyes.

Red Beet Gnocchi with Basil Pesto
Serves 4-6

3 small red beets
1 egg
1 lb ricotta cheese
3/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
1 3/4 cup flour
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground pepper

Preheat oven to 450°F. Wrap beets in aluminum foil and roast in the oven for an hour. Remove from oven and let cool for about 15 minutes. Carefully remove the skin and place the beets in a food processor and purée.

In a large mixing bowl, add the beet purée, ricotta, parmesan, egg, salt and pepper. Add one cup of flour and mix gently, being careful not to over handle or the dough will become heavy, and the gnocchi, little dough demons.

Place the remaining flour in a separate bowl. Scoop out a handful of the gnocchi dough, place it into the bowl with the flour and lightly coat. Sprinkle some flour on a clean work surface, then roll the dough into long logs about 3/4-inch thick. Cut the logs into one-inch pieces then using a fork, roll each gnocchi with the tines to create grooves.

To make the dough easier to work with, wrap in cling film and refrigerate for 15 minutes or up to 2 hours. This will firm up the dough and make the rolling easier. Working in batches, cook the gnocchi in a large pot of simmering salted water until they float to the surface, about 3-4 minutes, depending on the size of the gnocchi. Using a slotted spoon, remove the gnocchi once they float to the surface and keep warm until ready to serve.

If you like, sauté the gnocchi in a little butter or olive oil for a minute after they're cooked, then serve immediately with a spoonful of Basil Pesto or Gorgonzola Cream Sauce, and garnish with some young shoots or fresh herbs.

Basil Pesto

2 cups fresh basil leaves, packed
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan-Reggiano cheese
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup pine nuts
2 garlic cloves, minced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Combine the basil, garlic, and pine nuts in a food processor or blender and pulse until coarsely chopped. With the machine running, slowly add the olive oil and process until smooth. Add the cheese and pulse until combined. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. After sautéeing the gnocchi until they're crisp and lightly 'browned', remove from the heat and stir in 1/4 to 1/3 cup of the pesto. Serve warm and garnish with Parmesan cheese.

Gorgonzola Cream Sauce

2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp flour
1 1/2 cups whole milk
12 oz of Gorgonzola cheese, crumbled

In a saucepan melt the butter over medium heat. Stir in flour to create a roux and cook for 2 minutes. Slowly add the milk, whisking constantly to keep lumps from forming. Continue to stir while the sauce starts to thicken. Once the sauce has thickened and will coat the back of a spoon, blend in crumbled Gorgonzola and Parmesan until the cheese has melted. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Place the gnocchi into the skillet and toss to coat. Serve immediately in warmed dinner bowls and garnish with toasted walnuts and a sprinkle of parmesan cheese.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Spinach, Feta and Dill Spanakopita Cigars

A traditional Greek hors d'oeuvre, spanokopita are typically made as bite size triangle-shaped savoury pastries stuffed with spinach, onions, cheeses and fresh herbs, wrapped in buttery flaky phyllo and baked to flaky perfection. Using a similar technique for making springrolls, the filling is placed on small squares of buttered phyllo dough sheets and rolled up tightly to form thin cigars. These are then kissed with more butter and oil before baking until they become crispy golden brown. Elegant and delicious, Spanakopita Cigars can be rolled tighter for a more delicate appetizer, or rolled with more filling for a more generous cigar-shaped treat.

Spanakopita Cigars
Makes about 20-30 cigars, depending on the size

1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 small yellow onion, chopped
3 scallions, chopped
1/3 cup fresh dill, chopped
10 oz frozen chopped spinach. thawed and squeezed dry
6 oz feta cheese, crumbled
1 cup ricotta
1 egg
Salt and pepper to taste
1 lb phyllo, thawed
8 tbsp butter, melted
2 tbsp vegetable oil

Preheat oven to 375°F. Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in medium skillet over medium heat. Add the white and green chopped onions and cook until softened, about 3 to 4 minutes.

Meanwhile, mix the spinach, feta, ricotta and egg in medium bowl. Add the cooked onions and season with salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use. Combine the melted butter and oil in a small bowl and set aside until ready to use.

Cut each sheet of phyllo dough into 4 equal squares. Cover with a piece of cling film and then lay a slightly damp towel overtop. To make each cigar, take one piece of phyllo and lightly brush it with some of the butter and oil mixture. Top with a second sheet of phyllo and brush again. Place a heaping tablespoon of the spinach-feta mixture along the centre of the bottom side nearest to you. Fold up the phyllo once and then fold over the right side and then the left side of the phyllo. Brush with butter and oil mixture and then gently continue rolling it up like a burrito.
Place the cigars, as they're completed, seam side down on a parchment lined baking sheet and cover with  loose piece of cling film to keep them from drying out. Repeat until all the filling is gone. 

Remove the cling film and brush the tops of the cigars with more of the butter-oil mixture. Bake until they're crisp and golden brown, about 30 to 35 minutes.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Ina Garten's Curried Couscous à la Richard

Quick, easy and outrageously delicious, this colourful Curried Couscous from The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook by Ina Garten, is a fragrant feast for the eyes. An intoxicating combination of plain yogurt, curry, turmeric, carrots, currants, scallions and almonds comes together beautifully in this exotic interpretation of the humble North African staple. Lovingly prepared this past weekend by my foodie friend and über Ina Garten fan Richard, this fabulous full flavoured salad is so good, you'll be tempted to eat it all on its own. But it's even better when served with Ina's Tuscan Lemon Chicken.

Ina Garten's 'The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook'

It's no wonder that I've become an Ina Garten fan too as a result of Richard's consistently delicious dishes that he unfailingly prepares every time we get together. Not one to take all of the credit, he always acknowledges his muse — the ever fabulous Ina. I'm tempted to rush out and buy all of her cookbooks!

Ina Garten - The Barefoot Contessa

Curried Couscous

Serves 6

1 1/2 cups couscous
1 tbsp unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups boiling water
1/4 cup plain yogurt
1/4 cup good olive oil
1 tsp white wine vinegar
1 tsp curry powder
1/4 tsp ground turmeric
1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup small-diced carrots
1/2 cup minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
1/2 cup dried currants, raisins or cranberries
1/4 cup blanched, sliced almonds
2 scallions, 
white and green parts, thinly sliced
1/4 cup small-diced red onion

Place the couscous in a medium bowl. Melt the butter in the boiling water and pour over the couscous. Cover tightly and allow the couscous to soak for 5 minutes. Fluff with a fork.

Whisk together the yogurt, olive oil, vinegar, curry, turmeric, salt, and pepper. Pour over the fluffed couscous, and mix well with a fork. Add the carrots, parsley, currants, almonds, scallions, and red onions, mix well, and season to taste. Serve at room temperature.

My friend Richard — a great cook and Ina Garten devoté

Monday, June 25, 2012

Richard's Tarragon Potato Salad

My dear friends Richard and Cory are gracious hosts who are endeared for embracing wayward guests with blankets of love, delicious food, lots of laughter and a never-ending reservoir of gracious hospitality. Richard and Cory's cooking comes from the heart, with delicious recipes that resound with fabulous flavours like this outstanding Tarragon Potato Salad, the absolute best potato salad I've ever had. Don't look any further — this is pure heaven!

Tarragon Potato Salad
Serves 6

2 lb medium Yukon Gold potatoes
kosher salt
1 cup good mayonnaise
2 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 tbsp tarragon or white wine vinegar
1 tsp freshly grund white pepper
3 tbsp chopped scallions, white and green parts
3 tbsp minced red onion
2 tbsp minced tarragon
2 tbsp minced fresh dill

Place the potatoes in a pot with enough water to cover them. Add 1 tablespoon of salt, bring to a boil and simmer for 15 to 30 minutes, depending on the size of the potatoes, just until tender when pierced with a small knife or skewer. Drain in a colander. Put a kitchen towel over the colander and allow the potatoes to steam for 10 minutes. When cool enough to handle, peel the potatoes or leave the skins on if you prefer. Slice into 1/2-inch thick coins and place in a mixing bowl

Meanwhile, combine the mayonnaise, lemon juice, vinegar, 2 teaspoons of salt and the pepper. While the potatoes are still warm, pour the dressing over the potatoes and toss well. Add the scallions, red onion, tarragon and dill, and toss gently. Allow the salad to sit for at least 30 minutes for the flavours to develop. Sprinkle with salt and serve at room temperature.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Farro Salad with Mushrooms, Chèvre and Thyme

One of the most ancient of grains, Farro was first domesticated in the Fertile Crescent almost 10,000 years ago, and is said to have sustained legions of Roman troops during biblical times. Farro is still grown these days primarily in Morocco, Spain, Turkey and in northern and central Italy, where I recently discovered this highly nutritious grain while visiting Umbria earlier this year. Rich in protein and fibre with a nutty, chewy texture, farro is perfect in grain salads, soups, stuffings and pilafs, and is also a great alternative to meat. 

Whole grain farro

It's no surprise that the popularity of ancient grains has risen in recent years with the increasing interest in living healthier lifestyles. Many restaurants are now preparing dishes using quinoa, amaranth, kamut and farro for a variety of reasons: fabulous flavour, increased health benefits, and satisfying people's desire for new culinary adventures.

Farro comes ether 'pearled', 'semi-pearled' or 'whole grain'. Pearling is a process in which some or all of the bran and germ are buffed away. A similar process turns brown rice into white rice, with similar results — a grain that’s more refined, but largely voided of nutritional value. Whereas whole grains retain all of their nutrients, and has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and obesity. Best of all, whole grains have a more of a robust, nutty flavour, which is often absent in refined grains. However semi-pearled and pearled farro cook faster than whole-grain farro — about 60 minutes for whole-grain, 30 minutes for pearled — but the trade-off is decreased nutritional content. Your choice.

This wonderful Farro Salad with Mushrooms, Chèvre and Thyme recipe is simple, healthy and delicious. Sautéed onions, garlic and wild mushrooms are tossed together with cooked farro and dressed simply with a little olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Unexpectedly good, the deep flavours of the soft mushrooms pair perfectly with the chewy texture and earthy nuttiness of the farro. You have to figure, something that's been around this long, must be good!

Farro Salad with Mushrooms, Chèvre and Thyme
Serves 4-6

1 cup 'whole grain' or 'pearled' farro, rinsed
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
1/2 red onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
10 oz cremini or shiitake mushrooms
1 tsp red chili flakes
2 tbsp fresh whole thyme
salt and freshly ground pepper
1/4 cup crumbled goat cheese, feta or Parmigiana-Reggiano
1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted

In a large saucepan, add the rinsed farro, 3 cups of water or vegetable stock, and a touch of salt. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer and cover. Simmer until the farro is tender, about 15-20 minutes for pearled, or 50-60 minutes for the whole grain variety. The farro should have a chewy al-dente texture. Drain any excess liquid and transfer to a large bowl. Drizzle with 1 tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil and the balsamic vinegar and toss gently. Set aside.

Meanwhile, in a large sauté pan, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the onions and sauté until they are becoming translucent, about 3-5 minutes. Add the garlic and red chili flakes, sauté for a minute or until it becomes fragrant. Add the mushrooms and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Sauté the mushrooms until they change in texture and color. This will take between 10 and 15 minutes depending on size and type of mushroom. They will begin to turn a deep brown color. Add the fresh thyme about midway through and continue to stir as the mushrooms cook.

Once the mushrooms are soft and tender, remove from heat. Stir in the mushrooms, goat cheese and pine nuts with the farro. Season to taste with additional salt and pepper if necessary. Garnish with fresh thyme and serve immediately.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Japanese Yakitori: Grilled Chicken & Scallion

Yakitori is a popular Japanese dish dating back over 400 years — 'Yaki' means grilled and 'tori' is chicken. A traditional Japanese street food, Yakitori are bite sized pieces of chicken that are threaded onto bamboo skewers, grilled over a charcoal flame and basted with tare, a teriyaki-style glaze. Skewers with alternating bands of chicken and scallions are called Negima Yakitori, and skewers with no sauce and a simple sprinkling of salt are Shio Yakitori. The fast food of choice in urban Japan, hungry commuters scurrying home at the end of the day buy yakitori from vendors outside train stations and gobble them down, finishing up with a cold beer or shot of sake, and away they go.

Japanese Yakitori stand in Tokyo

The basic method for making Yakitori is quite simple. Start with bite-sized pieces of boneless and skinless chicken thighs and marinate them in the tare sauce for about 30 minutes to an hour, then thread the poultry onto dampened skewers with 1-inch lengths of scallion, and grill over a medium heat for 4 to 8 minutes. The kebabs should have a lovely golden brown colour and attractive grill marks, but not show signs of burning.

Negima Yakitori being prepared by a street vendor in Japan

Serve the hot Yakitori straight from the grill with warm Tare Sauce for dipping, for a delicious appetizer or midday snack. If you want to make them ahead of time, prepare the marinated skewers, let them drain a bit before chilling in the refrigerator until they're needed. The remaining marinade should then be boiled for about 5 minutes, and used to brush over the Yakitori while they're on the grill. Serve right away with a cold Japanese beer or warm sake. Kanpai!

Japanese Chicken Negima Yakitori
Serves 4

3 lb boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into bite-size pieces
12 scallions, white part only, cut into 1-inch lengths
1 tsp Maldon sea salt
16 bamboo skewers
Togarashi, for garnish (optional)

Yakitori Tare Sauce:
1 cup soy sauce
3 cups sake

3/4 cup mirin
1 tsp minced ginger
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1 tsp corn starch + 1 tbsp water, to thicken the sauce

Add all of the ingredients of the Yakitori Tare Sauce into a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to medium-high and keep stirring until thickened, about 10-15 minutes. Transfer to a small bowl and set aside.

Once the sauce has cooled, add the chicken to half of the Tare Sauce and gently toss to coat. Refrigerate for 1 hour. Meanwhile, soak 16 bamboo skewers in water for 20 minutes, then drain.

To make the yakitori, thread 3 bite-size pieces of chicken onto each bamboo skewer, separating each piece with two 1-inch pieces of scallion.
Heat up the BBQ and place the skewers on top of the grill. Sprinkle with a little sea salt on the surface of the chicken. Turn the skewers and do the same on the other side. Keep turning the chicken to make sure they are cooked and nicely charred evenly on both sides, about 4-6 minutes. When the chicken is almost done, brush the chicken skewers with Tare Sauce and grill for another 30-40 seconds on both sides. Sprinkle with a little Togarishi, a Japanese 7-spice seasoning, if you'd like some extra heat!

Serve the Yakitori immediately as an appetizer with a bowl of Tare Sauce for dipping, or as an entrée with a bowl of steamed rice and some stir-fried vegetables such as Baby Bok Choy & Shiitake Mushrooms.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Blueberry Mojito with Frituritas de Bacalao

Considered to be Cuba's national cocktail, a Mojito is one of the coolest summer drinks for the hottest of days. Traditionally made with rum, soda water and a refreshing hit of mint and lime, the secret to this Blueberry Mojito is the vibrant Blueberry-infused syrup which gives this cocktail it's fabulous colour and berry-licious flavour. Served over ice with a sprig of mint and a handful of fresh blueberries, all that's needed is a platter of delicious Cuban-inspired appetizers such as these crisp and golden Frituritas de Bacalao. Salud!

Blueberry Mojito
Serves 1

10 to 15 mint leaves, plus more for garnish
10 to 15 fresh blueberries, plus more for garnish
1 tbsp fresh lime juice
1 1/2 oz white rum 

Splash of club soda
1 oz blueberry simple syrup

Blueberry simple syrup:
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
1 1/2 cups blueberries

Combine water and sugar in a medium saucepan. Simmer over medium heat until the sugar dissolves, stirring occasionally. Add the blueberries and bring to a gentle boil. Reduce the heat to low, and simmer for at least 10 minutes to allow the flavour to infuse the syrup. Let cool, then strain to get rid of any solids. Pour into a glass container and refrigerate until the syrup is chilled, about an hour.

In a cocktail shaker, muddle the mint leaves, blueberries and 3/4-ounce of blueberry simple syrup. Fill with ice, add the rum and lime juice and shake well. Strain into an ice-filled highball glass, top with the club soda, stirring until you get a lovely purple colour. Garnish with some small blueberries and a sprig of fresh mint.

Frituritas de Bacalao (Cuban Cod Fritters)
Serves 4 as an appetizer

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

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 the cod with the onion, garlic, jalapeño, scallion, cilantro and cooking liquid. Beat in enough flour to obtain a thick paste, stir in the baking powder and season with 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 or chipotle mayonnaise for dipping.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Black Olive, Sun-Dried Tomato & Gruyere Bread

This warm and fragrant Black Olive, Sun-Dried Tomato & Gruyere Bread fresh from the oven, is the perfect partner to a warm soup or leafy summer salad. Dipped in a little olive oil or served with a selection of lovely ripe cheeses, it's a delicious recipe with a big personality. The breads boisterous character shines through with a savoury combination of zesty black olives, sun-dried tomatoes, fresh dill and Gruyère cheese, however a tangy cheddar, sautéed scallions, or mixed herbs such as chives, basil or chervil would be fabulous also. They key is to strive for a colourful confetti of enticing ingredients that both capture the eye and tingle the taste buds.

Black Olive, Sun-Dried Tomato & Gruyere Bread
Makes 1 loaf

1/2 cup olive oil, plus extra for greasing
3/4 cup all purpose flour

1 tsp baking powder 
1/4 tsp salt
1 tbsp dried thyme

1/4 cup chopped fresh dill
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup whole milk
1/4 cup pitted black or green olives, plus more for garnish
1/2 cup sun-dried tomatoes, roughly chopped, plus more for garnish
1/2 cup Gruyère cheese, grated

Heat oven to 375°F. Oil and line the base of a loaf tin with parchment paper.

Mix the flour, baking powder, salt and thyme in a large bowl. Make a well in the centre, then add the eggs, milk and oil, stirring constantly to draw the flour into the centre. Beat for one minute to make a smooth batter.

Add the tomatoes, olives, dill and two-thirds of the cheese to the batter. Pour into the tin, then place the reserved olives and tomatoes on top. Sprinkle with the remaining cheese. Bake for 35-40 minutes until the cake feels firm to the touch and is golden and crusty on top. Cool in the tin for 5 minutes, then turn out and cool on a wire rack.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Zucca: Exceptional Regional Italian Cuisine

New Zealand-born Andrew Milne-Allan, chef and co-owner of Zucca Trattoria in Toronto, creates traditional Italian dishes like a native Italian, drawing his inspiration from the regional culinary styles of Naples, Umbria, Sicily, Sardinia, Venice and elsewhere on the peninsula. How did a Kiwi expat become one of Toronto’s most respected Italian chefs? "I caught the Italian bug early and stuck at it," explains Andrew Milne-Allan. "Travelling to Italy, there’s something about the simplicity of the cuisine. I fell in love with it. Who doesn’t?" The self-taught chef moved to Toronto in 1975 to get what New Zealanders call 'O.E.', or overseas experience. The rest is history.

Chef Andrew Milne-Allan of Zucca

Blair Aspinall, co-owner and gregarious host of Zucca

Milne-Allan would become an integral part of the burgeoning restaurant scene along Queen Street West, opening The Parrot in 1978 with bad-boy chef Greg Couillard, and in 1983, starting Trattoria Giancarlo with Eugene Barone and Giancarlo Carnevale. In 1996, Milne-Allan together with co-owner and manager Blair Aspinall, launched Zucca to rave reviews. They've never looked back, winning accolades from fans since it opened more than fifteen years ago.

Zucca's muddled orange & ginger signature cocktail of the evening that Blair suggested I try. 
It's so new that they don't even have a name for it yet!

Serving the best local seasonal ingredients, Chef Milne-Allan makes his own pastas and sauces according to the season. Spring brings sweet little fava beans and local wild mushrooms with fresh ricotta. Winter is salt cod with olives and sweet peppers, or clouds of chestnut gnocchi with cabbage, fresh sage, black truffle and barely-there cream. There are meaty ragouts, poppy-seed sauces, plenty of delicate vegetables, and entrees that feature local suppliers such as Cumbrae Farms, La Ferme Black River Game, Angelao Bean Salsiccia and Sustainable Blue for the freshest seafood and delicious grilled whole fish, which changes daily.

Zucca's outrageously good hot rosemary sprinkled homemade Farinata, 
with a soft warm centre, with some warm olives on the side

To start the evening, a plate of delicious hot, rosemary-sprinkled farinata appears instantly as we peruse Zucca's menu, from fresh homemade Strozzapreti with wild leeks, fresh fava beans, prosciutto, and toasted bread crumbs, Chitarrina con Burrata, or 'guitar string' noodles, with burrata, calabrian lemon, over-dried tomatoes and green onions to Cappellacci Dei Briganti, 'brigands' hats' with a lamb and sweet pepper ragu. Pesce alla griglia is a house specialty, with a selection of fresh whole grilled fish offered each evening — tonight it was branzino and orata. We started the evening with a white Greco di Tufo wine that our marvelous server Briana suggested would be an excellent pairing with fish, and it was a perfect match. I also noticed that the table behind us had brought their own wine — for a nominal $25 corkage fee, diners who want to bring a special treasure with them to enjoy with their meal, and invited to do so. Nice touch.

Zucca's Farinata recipe can be found at the bottom of the page!

Zucca's fresh homemade bread and fennel-infused soft Grissini

Zucca's selection of Primi varies depending on what's in season, which makes each visit a new voyage of discovery. This evening there were two new delicious additions to the menu: A light and delicate Parmesan Flan served with Sliced Beets and a sweet balsamic drizzle, as well as a typically Venetian dish of Poached White Asparagus Wrapped in Speck and served on perfectly grilled white polenta. We also tried the lovely Insalata di Sanguinelli,salad of sliced Sicilian blood oranges with belgium endive, sweet onion, medjool dates and fresh mint; Insalata Tiepida di Polipo, which was grilled octopus served on warm sliced potatoes, celery heart, cherry tomatoes and gaeta olives; and Poached Local Organic Green Asparagus with sautéed mushrooms, arugula and grana padano cheese.

Parmesan Flan and Sliced Beets with a sweet Balsamic Drizzle

Salad of sliced Sicilian oranges with begian endive and sweet onion 
with pomegranate seeds and fresh mint

Warm locally grown organic Asparagus with sautéed mushrooms, 
arugula and Parmegiana-Reggiano

Insalata tiepida di polipo: Grilled Octopus with warm potatoes, Calabrian lemons, 
sweet onion, cherry tomatoes and gaeta olives

White Asparagus wrapped in Speck on White Polenta

Entrées include a selection of homemade pasta, fresh grilled fish, grilled dry-aged cumbrae farms NY steak, roasted naturally-raised mallard duck breast, sicilian-style rabbit and naturally-raised grilled Roman-style cornish hen, in addition to a selection of special dishes which change each day. I chose the Whole Grilled Branzino which can come de-boned, but I asked for it to come whole, with the head and tail still intact. A small bottle of olive oil and bowl of sea salt arrive with the fish as well as a contorni, which this evening was sautéed swiss chard and grilled artichokes. I couldn't have been happier. 

Pesce alla Griglia: Whole grilled Branzino stuffed with fresh herbs and lemon 
served with olive oil and sea salt

The swiss chard being sautéed for my Branzino

Contorni with the grilled fish: Sautéed swiss chard with artichokes

Another typical dish of the Veneto is the Troccoli al Nero ai Frutti di Mare, squid ink noodles with shrimp, mussels and cuttlefish in a brodo of white wine, parsley and olive oil. We also tried the Pansoti con salsa di noci, a Ligurian ravioli with spring greens and ricotta in a toasted walnut sauce served with grano padano cheese, and the evening's special pasta, Casoncelli noodles with a meaty Beef and Pork ragu.

Troccoli al Nero ai Frutti di Mare: Squid ink noodles with shrimp, mussels, 
cuttlefish, white wine, parsley and olive oil

Pansoti con salsa di noci: Ligurian ravioli with spring greens and ricotta 
in a toasted walnut sauce served with grano padano cheese

Casoncelli, a meaty ragu with Beef and Pork

The warm and inviting interior of Zucca

Zucca had been on my culinary radar for such a long time, I can't believe it took me so long to discover this culinary gem. At 62, Milne-Allan still loves to cook and hasn’t planned his 'exit strategy' for retirement just yet. As he says, "With cuisine, you can never know it all. It’s a lifelong learning experience." Judging from the dedicated following he's cultivated over the years, they'd be thrilled if he keeps on creating for many years to come. As one reviewer quipped — "If your mama could cook this good, you'd never leave home". 

Delicious, hot rosemary-sprinkled farinata appears instantly as you peruse 
Zucca's seasonally changing menu

Hot Rosemary Sprinkled Farinata
Serves 6-8
Recipe courtesy of Andrew Milne-Allan / Zucca

3/4 cup chick pea flour
2 cups cold water
1 tsp salt
1/2 medium onion, thinly sliced
dried rosemary
extra virgin olive oil

Whisk 1/2 water into the flour beating out the lumps. Add the rest of the water and the salt, whisking well. Let the batter rest for 2 hours.

Cut parchment paper into a circle just larger than a large baking sheet or 12" circular pizza pan. When ready to cook preheat oven to 500°F.

Whisk the batter again, adding a little more cold water. It should be the consistency of table cream. Place the paper over the pan, smoothing it into the edges with your fingers. Generously cover the paper with olive oil. Using a large ladle add 2/3 of the batter to the pan. With a rubber spatula mix the olive oil and batter together. It does not need to be mixed completely. Add the remaining batter. Spread the onions evenly over the batter.

Transfer to the hot oven. After 5 minutes when the batter is starting to set sprinkle the rosemary evenly over the surface. Continue to cook until golden brown, 20-25 minutes. Remove from the oven, dress with extra virgin olive oil and fresh ground black pepper. When cool enough to handle use a metal spatula to lift the farinata off the paper and cut into wedges. Deliciosa!

Zucca's Spaghetti Alla Norma topped with eggplant and garlic chips

Spaghetti Alla Norma 
Serves 4
Recipe courtesy of Andrew Milne-Allan / Zucca

1 1 lb medium eggplant
9 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 medium onion, finely chopped
28-oz can Italian plum tomatoes, roughly chopped, juices reserved
1 cup torn basil leaves, packed
Ground black pepper
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 lb dried spaghetti
Grated ricotta salata for serving

Trim and discard eggplant stem. Cut in half lengthwise. Cut each half crosswise into 1/2-inch thick semi-circles. Season with salt. Press between paper towels 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat 2 tbsp oil in large pot over medium heat. Add onion. Cook, stirring, until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add tomatoes, their juices and 2/3 cup basil. Simmer until thickened, about 15 to 20 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Keep warm over low heat.

In small fry pan, combine garlic and 4 tbsp oil. Place over medium-low heat. Cook until garlic is lightly golden and crisp. Drain on paper towel. Reserve oil for another use if desired.

Preheat broiler to high. Lay eggplant slices on foil-lined baking tray. Brush both sides with remaining 3 tbsp oil. Broil 6 inches from heat until browned and cooked through, about 7 to 8 minutes per side. Turn off broiler and keep warm in cooling oven.

Bring large pot of salted water to boil. Cook spaghetti according to instructions on package. Drain and add to sauce over low heat. Cook, stirring, 1 minute. Place pasta on large platter or divide among 4 bowls. Top with eggplant slices, garlic chips and remaining 1/3 cup basil. Serve immediately with ricotta salata.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Chilled Creamy Carrot Soup with Fine Herbes Mousse

Cool, creamy and intense, this silky smooth Chilled Creamy Carrot Soup from Thomas Keller's Michelin-starred California restaurant, 'The French Laundry', captures the essence of the season's fresh produce. The earthy sweetness of farm fresh carrots and the mellow heat of fragrant curry powder, local honey and rich cream are made for each other. Garnished with a savoury quenelle of whipped Fine Herbes Mousse, made from crème frâiche, fresh chives, chervil, tarragon and parsley, this bright and beautiful soup is excellent served either warm or chilled, as part of an elegant brunch or al fresco summer meal.

Chef Thomas Keller

Chilled Cream of Carrot Soup
Serves 4

3 medium carrots, peeled, trimmed, and cut into 1" rounds
2 1/2 cups fresh carrot juice
1 tsp butter
1 tsp honey
1/4 tsp curry powder
1/2 cup heavy cream
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
Fresh nutmeg for garnish

Simmer the carrots, half of the carrot juice, butter, honey and curry in a medium pot over medium-low heat until the liquid has evaporated and carrots are very soft, about 1 hour. Add the cream, increase heat to medium, and simmer for 3 minutes. Purée the carrot mixture with the remaining 1 1/4 cups carrot juice using an immersion or standing blender. Then pass the soup through a fine sieve into a medium bowl and season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate until chilled. Divide soup between 4 chilled soup glasses or bowls and garnish with a swirl of cream, fresh ground nutmeg and some chives, or Thomas Keller's Fine Herbes Mousse.

Fine Herbes Mousse

Serves 4

1/4 cup crème frâiche
1 chive, finely chopped
1 small sprig parsley, minced
1 small sprig chervil, minced
1 small sprig tarragon, minced

For the mousse, whisk crème frâiche in a medium bowl until stiff peaks form. Fold in the chives, parsley, chervil, and tarragon. Divide soup between 4 chilled soup bowls and place a spoonful of mousse in centre of each bowl.