A colleague at work has just abandoned we cubicle rats for a month to vacation in the hot Italian sun. She has spent the past two weeks reminding others of this fact; and although I keenly do the same when it’s my turn to escape abroad, I’m no less aggrieved and envious when left behind. But why be jealous, really? Sure, Frommer’s says nice things about it; but Italy isn’t all Sistine chapels, olive-skinned supermodels, or linguine heavenly enough to make Julia Roberts swoon. And I’m sure that more people die on wobbly Vespas in Rome than of bee stings here in Canada. So there.
Ok, this isn’t working. I’m obviously in denial. Admittedly, Italy has been on my bucket list for a while, even if my mother tells me it was noisy, dirty and full of pigeons and creepy men who stare. That sounds pretty much like where I live now, or at least no worse. Give me the Vespas. Give me the green pastures, luscious grapes hanging heavily from the vine, warm bread dipped in olive oil, or an impassioned, heart-wrenching Italian aria. Heck, give me lice from sleeping on a dirty hammock, if it means getting to bask in the Mediterranean sun for even one afternoon.
Apparently I’m in need of a holiday and thankfully I have one approaching…though not to Italy. While waiting for my credit card travel points to slowly accumulate enough to cross an ocean, I’ll travel in the meantime by other means: Tonight I made this Italian-inspired dish with pan-roasted chicken, kalamata olives and roasted cherry tomatoes, I savoured a glass of red wine, and listed to Verdi’s La Forza Del Destino while yearning desperately for another continent.
If you’ve never been to Nelson, British Columbia then you have been missing some of the most awe-inspiring natural landscapes that the province offers, as well as some of the best restaurants this side of Montreal. In addition to its brush with fame in the 80’s as the filming location for Steve Martin’s Roxanne, the town also has an eclectic music and arts scene, decent skiing and an economy that is apparently fuelled principally by the sale of psychotropics. The highlight of my stay was stumbling upon a couple of hidden gem restaurants that intrigued me with the novelty of their meals. Two side dishes, in particular, sent me reeling at the table: Masala Poutine with fromage frais and flash-fried risotto balls in panko.
I’ve tried unsuccessfully to duplicate the masala poutine. Hailing from La Belle Province I have a predisposition for poutine and anything deep fried, just as I have an ingrained dislike, equally strong, for Quebec’s other well known export, Celine Dion. I picked up a mandoline to emulate the style of fries, but to no avail. I’ve also ruined two batches of masala sauce concoctions, none of which are worthy of the original. When I finally do get this close enough to post, remind me to tell you the story about the time we introduced poutine to Laos.
The risotto balls, on the other hand, have agreed with my efforts of experimentation. I’ve strayed from the original ones I sampled, but did still choose to enrobe them in panko, with a quick dip in the deep fryer for crunchiness. I’ve also added a little bit of white wine, for added flavour and acidity, and stuffed the balls with mozza and a fire roasted red pepper fresh from my BBQ. I made each ball a little larger than a golf ball; and although their size is diminutive, they are tremendously filling, beware.
One Friday night a few weeks ago I had the opportunity to work under the tutelage of Bruce at his Saltspring Island restaurant. Although I tell people, tongue-in-cheek, that I used to be a chef in an Italian restaurant when I was younger, the truth is that I was just a lowly pizza cook, burning my forearms daily on the oven door and reeking of pepperoni for minimum wage and free pizza-by-the-slice. Since then, pizza has never held the same appeal. I was expecting a similar kind of hell at Bruce’s Kitchen, but was pleased to find a professionally run, familial kitchen where gourmet meals were prepared using only fresh and local ingredients. I’d expect nothing less from an eatery on Saltspring Island, a Gulf Island eden that is so sheltered from most western commercialism that the mere mention of an impending McDonald’s franchise would spur locals to chain themselves to bulldozers and burn clown effigies in protest.
Bruce takes pride in all aspects of his food, from farm to table as his slogan proclaims, and his attention to detail is astonishing; even the most basic condiment, such as mustard, mayo or vanilla extract, is made painstakingly from scratch by Bruce himself. For anyone ignorant of the sustenance that feeds them, they need only pass an afternoon in Bruce’s Kitchen watching its namesake chef hard at work.
I was there to help Bruce with his renowned Friday night dinners, for which menus were prepared using clever and creative themes that changed on a weekly basis. That night’s menu was of a children’s literary theme, drawing as its muse such works as Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (hand-ground lamb meatballs stuffed with fire-roasted red peppers, served on a bed of creamy polenta), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (chocolate espresso mousse) and the classic Green Eggs and Ham (kale ravioli).
It was this last dish that I aimed to duplicate at home, it was so good. I have used my pasta maker previously to make ravioli, but the pasta turned out bland and misshapen by the time it landed on my plate. To remedy this, Bruce used a ravioli cutter or pastry crimper to properly shape the ravioli; so I took note and picked up my own afterwards. To liven up the taste and colour of the pasta, he mixed in chopped kale. I couldn’t remember the exact recipe, a few weeks after the fact, but trial and error gave me a finished product that I was pleased with. Thanks for the inspiration, Bruce, and for your patience with my endless questions.
Risotto was one of the first “adult” recipes I ever attempted during my university years, back when even grilled cheese seemed ambitious. It’s not difficult to make by any means – in fact far from it – but it isn’t quick either. It requires constant stirring for a good 30 minutes, so if you plan to entertain your dinner guests with involved conversation, shadow puppets or pre-dinner juggling perhaps you should stick to rice or roasted potatoes as a side dish instead. I personally think it’s worth it and haven’t come across anyone yet who has passed up a plate of warm risotto topped with fresh Parmigiano Reggiano.
I had never even heard of risotto until being invited to a Slow Food experience at a friend’s house a few years ago. I’ve been known to eat like a prison inmate, purposefully focused on my food and quickly devouring, so I had my reservations about how I would cope with slow food. Unlike my misconceptions, slow food didn’t actually involve chewing each morsel for twenty minutes; but rather, sampling different dishes in different rooms over the course of five hours and pairing each dish with a glass of wine or aperitif. Or at least that was my friend’s take on it.
For Christmas one year I received a stacker cooking kit. It looks like a device that should have included Play Dough, though it is meant for food. It’s perfect for stacking veggies, rice – or in this case risotto – into shapes, and for layering various food like geological strata on the plate. I had some spinach and beets in my fridge so thought these would be good test subjects for stacking with the risotto. The result: a tasty and colourful tower of Italian delight. Enjoy!
If you like risotto, you may also like my Beet Risotto or Heavenly Dark Chocolate Dessert Risotto
This afternoon I went for a long walk around the lake and by kilometre six I was so ravenous with hunger that all I could think about was Italian chicken piccata and a cold Perrier. Despite how the name sounds to those that speak the Romance Languages, this dish isn’t spicy or piquant at all – piccata actually refers to the way the meat is prepared: sauteed and served in a sauce of butter, lemon, spices and parsley. This dish can be made with chicken or veal, though my preference is the former; and it uses four of my favourite ingredients in the pan sauce that accompanies it: freshly-squeezed lemon juice, cilantro, wine and capers. When all four are used together in one recipe, the aroma makes me delirious and misty-eyed. It is really that good, I swear. The other great thing about this dish is the heavy whacking involved in the preparation of the meat, to flatten it out before dredging it in batter. A perfect way to blow off steam, pounding the cutlets can be done with either a meat tenderizer, rolling pin or heavy Ayn Rand novel. Continue reading
I’m not sure how, but shockingly I made it through 29 years of my life without ever tasting a beet. The day that I had one was a revelation to my taste buds. There is not a week that goes by now when my fridge is not full of these wonderful, healthy treats. There are so many delicious ways of cooking beets, though this combination of the dark red, flavourful beet with another of my favourite foods – risotto – is a unique and mouth-watering side dish. It also calls for cooking with white wine, which is always a great excuse to indulge a little in a glass while cooking. Continue reading
Cutting strips of pasta by hand - a little like zen sand art
Preparing fresh pasta by hand will likely be one of the more pleasurable cooking activities you’ll experience. Not only is this easy to make at home, but the fresh pasta will taste like it’s being served directly from a family kitchen in Italy. Molto Bene!
I’ve made pasta two different ways: by hand (more difficult and challenging to cut) and using a pasta machine (this is my preferred option, though you’ll need to pick up a machine – not to worry, Christmas is coming). If rolling and cutting by hand, the pasta will still taste great; it will usually just leave you with pasta strips that are thicker than you would get from a machine. Either way you make this though, this is much more impressive to dinner guests that emptying a store-bought package of pasta into a pot of boiling water.