Sunday, September 28, 2014

Playing Hooky!

A few weeks ago my wife, Vicki, and I buggered off for a day (as our late and great friend David Younger would have said). It was going to be a gorgeous warm day, school was back in session and we hadn’t been to the Toronto Islands in a dog’s age.

I got up early to do a bit of prep for our meal (more on that later, of course!) and we made our plans for a really terrific day off.

The Toronto Islands are a string of low islands protecting our Inner Harbour. Most of it is a public park, although at one end is a small community (the existence of which is a hotly debated topic) and at the other end is the Toronto City Centre Airport (also a very hotly debated topic). The narrow channels between the small islets are often filled with paddle boats, canoes and kayaks, and to enjoy the walkways and paths of the main island, you can rent two- and four-wheel pedal operated vehicles (you can’t call a four-wheeled vehicle a bicycle now, can you?) by the hour. Learn more HERE.

We’ve always wanted to do that, do we did. Pedaling leisurely took us about 20 minutes to get to Ward Island where the houses are and it was really quite enjoyable. There wasn’t time to get to the opposite end (where the nude beach is, oh là là!), so we have that to look forward to in a future trip.

Getting there is a large part of the fun. Ferries leave frequently from the terminal at the foot of Bay Street, so you get a lake voyage as part of your day, always pleasant. There are also views of mighty Lake Ontario from the boardwalks and beaches on the western side of Centre Island. And did we mention the small amusement park and farm (closed because the season was over)? We used to take our boys there for a special day out when they were little

One reason for going during the week was to avoid crowds. Unfortunately, that didn’t work out quite as planned because the island was swarmed by university kids doing team building type things, so when it came time to find a place for our picnic (a big part of our excursion) we had to really hunt around to find something away from the madding crowd. But find one we did.

My beautiful companion for the day!
Now, for our special day, we needed something special to eat, right? A family favorite for picnics is cold fried chicken and buttered rye bread, but I’d been wanting to make lobster rolls all summer long and this was my opportunity. Vicki has never met a lobster that she hasn’t wanted to eat, so she was enthusiastic as well. A trip to the fish market was called for!

So today, I’m going to share our favorite recipe for this summertime treat. I suppose it should be called “Lobster Salad Roll” since the true “Lobster Roll” (originating in Connecticut) is traditionally served warm with the chunks of lobster having been heating in drawn butter. Still, our recipe is very nice flavored as it is with fresh tarragon (always a great choice with crustaceans) and makes a lovely picnic main course. I believe we found the basis for this on

That day on the Toronto Islands, it tasted better than ever — but that’s probably because we were enjoying the perfect late summer weather while playing hooky!

Lobster Salad Roll
serves 4

2 one-and-a-half-pound lobsters boiled and chilled thoroughly
1/4 cup finely chopped shallots
2 Tbs fresh lemon juice
1/4 tsp salt
scant 1/4 tsp of freshly grated black pepper
3-4 Tbs mayonnaise
2 Tbs chopped fresh tarragon
a touch of Tobasco sauce
some Boston lettuce leaves
4 soft-crust rolls (hot dog rolls if you must!)

  1. Extract the all the meat from each lobster: claws, joints and the tails. If they were boiled, you may need to squeeze the meat gently, either in a colander with the back of a spoon or even just in your hand to get rid of excess liquid. If you don’t know how to clean a lobster, here’s an excellent video on how to do it and get the pieces out in large chunks which suits this recipe:
  2. Combine the shallots, lemon juice and salt and let it stand at room temperature for 1/2 hour.
  3. Next, chop up the meat (discard tomalley and any roe) and cut meat into 1/2-inch pieces.
  4. Whisk together remaining ingredients into the shallot mixture, then add the lobster meat and toss it gently until coated.
  5. Toast and butter the buns generously. Line the inside with boston lettuce and load in the lobster!
This is especially good with a chilled sauvignon blanc or pouilly fuisse.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

A little trip to the world’s most unique city: Venice

A Venetian backwater. Gorgeous, no?
In June 2011, my wife and I had the very good fortune to be able to visit Italy. The trip wasn’t all for giggles, though. I had a crime novel underway (barely) and part of it was going to be set in Italia. The finished product of this trip, Roses for a Diva, will be available for you to buy in less than a month if you so desire.

But that’s not really what this post is about. While in Italy, we ate and cooked a lot of great food. Seriously. We stayed only in places where we could cook. If I had to pick my favourite of the locations visited — a really tough assignment — it would have to be that legendary city on the water, Venezia.

In honor of our first visit, the weather cooperated — an important point in late June when days and nights can be hot and humid — and we had only one short daytime shower to “suffer” through. We were out and about every day from early morning to dusk, visiting locations that I might want to use in my book (read Roses to see what famous places made the cut), and to just get a feel for this most unique city. Our camera was busy throughout, as well, and we have well over a hundred reference photos which I relied on quite heavily while writing the Venetian portion of the book.

As for cooking and eating, we had a one-bedroom apartment in the eastern part of the city just off Via Garibaldi. Our “kitchen” consisted of an alcove that could only fit one person, a two-burner electric hot plate with a tiny fridge underneath it, and a sink that didn’t work all that well. If you’ve read some of my earlier posts on our trip, you’ll know that we had a “traveling larder” consisting of fresh and canned tomatoes, Parmesan cheese, pasta, fruit and oil and vinegar along with some herbs and spices. We also always had or eye out for a good bakery, fruttivendolo or other place where we could pick up something interesting.

Just down Via Garibaldi there was a small market during the early part of the day, and we bought a fish that I cooked within hours. I have no idea what it was, but it was fresh and very good. We also picked up some of the best cherries I’ve ever eaten right off a small boat tied to the side of the canal at the end of the street.

It was all very atmospheric, and during our 4-day visit, we got a good feel for what it’s like to live in this city. As a sidebar, I just loved wandering around, having no idea where we were going. Even if you get hopelessly lost, just keep going. Eventually you’ll get to the shore on the other side of the city, and then it’s just a matter of walking to the next vaporetto stop where you can get a ride on one of the city’s “water buses” that circle the island as well as plying their way up and down the Grand Canal, and to the outlying islands. If you’re ever in Venice, I guarantee if you try this, you will see a lot of unexpected and interesting things. The city is just full of “unexpected”.

But all of this is still not why I’m writing this post.

Served at an intimate dinner on our patio.
My wife, Vicki, bought a cookbook recently, and browsing through it, I found a Venetian pasta dish that looked too good not to try: Bigoli con salsa d’acciughe. For those of you who don’t speak Italian — as my darling wife does — this means “bigoli pasta with anchovy sauce”. It’s considered one of the signature dishes of Venice. We love anchovies around here — and to prove that, we normally have a large tin of salted ones in the back of our fridge — so this recipe really caught my eye. A real specialty of Venice and it has anchovies as a main ingredient? What more could we want?

It did not disappoint, even though I made a very critical boo-boo when measuring things the first time I made it. We were only make a half-recipe and I got everything right except for halving the amount of anchovies we needed. The dish was certainly not inedible by any means, but it was awfully salty. Eager to rectify that and be able to make a proper assessment of the recipe, I tried again a week later. This time it proved to be really delicious, especially the combination of anchovies (salty and pungent) and onions (sweet), the sauce’s two main ingredients. With a really good cold-pressed virgin olive oil, you get a very attractive fruitiness, and the crunch of the breadcrumbs is lovely.

A note on bigoli: This is not a well-known pasta shape outside of Italy and it originated in Venice or the Veneto. The best description is “a larger version of bucatini”. In other words, it’s a long thick tube about as thick as a wooden knitting needle. Originally, it was made with buckwheat, but it’s now more often than not made with whole wheat (integrale). Thus far, we’ve been unable to find bigoli in Toronto, so we used spaghetti, although bucatini would probably have been a better traditional choice.

Bigoli con salsa d’acciughe / Bigoli with anchovy sauce
Serves 4

1 1/3 cups fresh breadcrumbs
2/3 cup cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil
3 Tbs minced Italian parsley (don’t use dried parsley!)
salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 1/2 cups thinly sliced red onion (I’m not kidding. It will cook way down)
3 oz anchovy fillets, chopped
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
1 pound bigoli, bucatini or spaghetti pasta

  1. If you don’t know how to make fresh breadcrumbs, it’s easy. Take a loaf of white or whole wheat bread, cut off the crusts and use a food processor or blender (our choice) to turn them into crumbs. Freeze any extra in a plastic bag from which you’ve sucked the air (to keep ice from forming).
  2. Over a medium flame, heat “to the point of fragrance” (love that term!) 3 tablespoons of the olive oil in a wide skillet, then add the bread crumbs. Stirring constantly, toast them until they’re golden brown and crisp. Remove them from the skillet and stir in the minced parsley, a touch of salt and a good grinding of black pepper. Set aside.
  3. Cut the onions in half longitudinally (top to bottom), then slice each half very thinly.
  4. Rinse thoroughly and then fillet the anchovies if you’re using the salt-packed ones (and they’re far superior for the usual anchovy filets in oil you find in grocery stores). It’s not complicated. Using a very sharp, thin bladed knife (like a paring knife), start at the tail and cut along the backbone towards the front of the fish. (It’s not hard to cut the filet in one large piece once you get the knack.) Flip the fish over and cut the meat of the other side. Some larger bones may be around the front of the fish, some guts also, so just pull these off with your fingers. I don’t bother removing any fins. They dissolve during cooking, same thing for the fish’s tiny bones. If any meat remains along the backbone, pull it off with your fingers. If you’re using the oil packed fillets, just drain them on some paper towels.
  5. Any anchovies are heavily salted during processing and that can make this dish too salty for some tastes since you’re using a lot of them. If that’s the case for you, soak them for 10 minutes in milk. This will leach out some of the salt. Dry carefully on paper towels if you do this. An alternative — and what I do — is to use little salt in the pasta water. End the anchovy prep by chopping the anchovies relatively finely.
  6. Heat the remaining olive oil in the skillet (now clean again) until the point of fragrance and cook the sliced onion slowly (don’t let it brown) until it’s very soft (about 20 minutes). A couple of pinches of salt will aid the process.
  7. Start heating the water for the pasta.
  8. Add the anchovies to the sauce, mashing them into the onions. You want them dissolve into the sauce.
  9. Once the water is at a rolling boil, add salt to the water but not heavily (see above). Cook the pasta until done. Reserve about a cup of the pasta water.
  10. Turn up the heat under the sauce and stir in a half cup of the pasta water and add the red pepper flakes. Break up the onion/anchovy mixture as best you can. Add the cooked pasta and two thirds of  the breadcrumbs and toss throughly, further separating the clumps of onions and anchovies. Add more pasta water if it’s too dry. We generally serve pasta courses in large soup bowls. Whatever you use, make sure they’re heated! Plate each portion and divide up the remaining breadcrumbs, sprinkling them over each.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

So many tomatoes, so little time

Since we love food around here, especially fruit and vegetables in season, we eagerly look forward to three sings as summer rolls into August: corn, peaches and tomatoes.

For the corn, we want it fresh out of the field with tender kernels and a sweet taste. We don’t care what variety it is, just that its fresh and sweet, and of course, tender.

For the peaches, we want them either off our own tree in the back corner of our yard (none this year sadly, because of a late frost) or picked a day or two before down in the orchards of Niagara and at their peak of perfection. I like to slice them up to eat them. We also have a quick, easy and mega-great peach kuchen recipe which is a treasured memory of my mother. Over the years we’ve made hundreds of these things. You can find the recipe by clicking HERE.

Ready for the oven.
But for me, I wait for the tomatoes. We grow beefsteaks (Big Beef), cherry tomatoes (Sweet 100) and San Marzanos. Even with only nine plants, on a good year, we get snowed under. Thing is, tomatoes are only worth eating when they’ve been vine-ripened. They’re best when they haven’t been refrigerated (ever!) and for me, I like them still warm from the afternoon sun. This year, even considering how cool our evenings have been (the essential thing to get your tomatoes to really ripen perfectly), our crop is really outstanding, huge perfectly ripe and flavorful fruits. This is what tomatoes are all about!

Off-season, tomatoes are not worth buying (at least in North America). Even the “vine-ripened” ones are a joke: thin tasting, not sweet, mealy or still hard. The tomato industry is only interested in tomatoes that last for a long time, look good and transport well. Taste? That’s way down on their list.

Ready for the table. Yum!
I’ve ranted about this before, so let’s not beat a dead horse. The best tomato is one right out of the field, or preferably your own garden. Period. We will forgo tomatoes the rest of the year and live for those 6-8 weeks where we have them at their peak. And for us, that’s right now.

One of our favorite ways to make them is grilled. There’s little that’s better than slicing a big one in half, sprinkling it with some herbs, spices and raining down a bit of bread crumbs before popping it under the broiler and cooking it until it browned and a tiny bit shriveled. If you started with tomatoes at room temperature, they’ll be nicely warmed through. With some grilled meat, you’ve got a match made in heaven.

So without further ado, here’s our grilled tomato recipe: quick, easy, and absolutely delicious!

Grilled Tomatoes
(serves 2-4, depending on how much other food you’re serving)

2 ripe and juicy beefsteak-type tomatoes
granulated garlic (about the only time we use it)
salt and freshly ground black pepper
Worcestershire sauce
fresh breadcrumbs
olive oil
shredded fresh basil leaves for garnish


  1. Cut the tomatoes in half longitudinally. Cut the stem portion away on the top piece, and the flower stub away on the bottom piece (if it’s there). Place them cut side up in a baking pan, an oven-proof frying pan or just make a tray out of aluminum foil.
  2. Sprinkle the top of each tomato with granulated garlic, a bit of salt and a good grinding of black pepper. I usually sprinkle about a half teaspoon of Worcestershire sauce on each one. Put a good bit of breadcrumbs on top of the tomatoes next and then drizzle on some good quality olive oil to finish up.
  3. I find it best to put the tomatoes in a 350° oven for 10-15 minutes. Quite often I’m using the oven for some meat, so I remove the tomatoes, cook the meat (steak or pork tenderloin anyone?), then while it rests, you can pop the tomatoes under the broiler until the bread crumbs toast up nicely.
  4. Just before serving, thinly slice some basil leaves and sprinkle them over the top of the breadcrumbs. Serve these piping hot!

And that’s it. With perfectly ripe tomatoes, this is a dish you’ll dream about for the next ten months until the tomatoes are ripe once again.