Saturday, June 18, 2011

Feeding the Fringe

Happy Summer!

One thing that Ottawa is good for in the summertime (and most cities, I guess) is the bevvy of festivals that come into being. Along with those festivals comes a lot of pre-parties. As a result, this past Wednesday (June 15), marked an interesting milestone in my cooking adventures: it was that first time I made a lot of food for a bunch of strangers in a party-catering type setting.

First, let's set the scene. My good friend Bryony (@ladylovewell on twitter) is the Associate Producer for Ottawa's Fringe Festival, which runs from the 16th to the 26th of June. The Fringe Festival is a cornucopia of diverse, unusual, ribald, silly, bizarre and *insert multitude of appropriate adjectives here* theatre in the form of plays at various venues, mostly centered around downtown Ottawa's Arts Court. But, there's many forums describing the Fringe that do it far better justice than I can, such as: (official site) (play reviews and more!)

#ottfringe (twitter hashtag - and man do those Fringers like to tweet!)

I've only seen two shows so far (as of Saturday, June 18), but I found both well worth the time. Looking forward to more!

Anyway, Kari (@kira_generika on twitter) and I have signed on as volunteers for a few days here and there. Wednesday night was the opening party/gala/shindig and we were both signed up for a shift to basically help serve food and keep the party area clean and tidy. Now, Bryony being the High Queen of multitasking, had taken it upon herself to make the food for this shindig and needed a few helping hands. Being the sucker for a pretty face (and shiny soul) that I am, I offered my help (not sure if I included Kari in that without asking... oops if I did!). I also offered to make something on the smoker mostly for the challenge, exposure and experience, on top of doing it because I'm super-nice!

So, that afternoon, after putting together an order of Smoked Pork Tenderloin with Blueberry BBQ Sauce, I zipped over to Bryony and Graham's (her fella; @boogiehowser on twitter) to help with the rest of the hors d'oeuvre prep. What I discovered is that you can feed a lot of people with very, very simple recipe ideas. In a flurry of cutting, chopping, stirring, sizzling, etc., we put together a spread for dozens in about 3 hours. And it was a DAMN good spread!

Here's the menu (so far as I can remember):

- Bacon-Wrapped Dates
- Prosciutto-Wrapped Pecorino and Peaches
- Veggies and Dip
- Bruschetta with Pita Crisps
- Cherry Tomatoes Stuffed with Goat Cheese and Basil
- Smoked Pork Tenderloin w/Blueberry BBQ Sauce on Crostini

And, as expected, the hors d'oeuvres were gobbled up with the kind of efficiency only witnessed when artists have access to free food! Well, there were a lot of raw zucchini sticks left. I guess there are limits to

On top of that, there were a lot of cookies and cupcakes brought in by a couple of different local bakeries. I know B-Goods made the cookies (damn good cookies at that!), but I can't remember the name of the bakery that supplied the cupcakes. I really to take notes on these things...

So, if you're ever in the market to cater a big party for you and your friends, well, it's your lucky day, because I'm going to give you the recipes for pretty much everything we made. I didn't get a chance to take any pictures (see my last post for the sad story on my camera's passing), so I'm going to take what I can from the Internet.

Alright, let's get to it!

1 - Bacon-Wrapped Dates 

- 50 pitted dates (Medjool dates are fairly common to find in the supermarket, but make sure they're pre-pitted and partially dried)
- 25 pieces of bacon, cut in half.
- 50 round toothpicks

- Fry the bacon pieces until cooked, but not crispy.
- Drain bacon on paper towels.
- Wrap bacon half around date and secure with toothpick.
- Lay all pieces on serving tray.

Not exactly rocket surgery, eh? Time permitting, you can also give it an extra bit of awesomeness by stuffing the dates with some kind of cheese before wrapping them.

Here's what the final product basically looked like:

2 - Prosciutto-Wrapped Pecorino and Peaches

- 6-8 large peaches, slightly under-ripe, pitted and cut into 8 pieces (for a total of 48-64 pieces)
- 12-16 slices of prosciutto, cut into four equal pieces (or you can try speck, a smoked Italian ham that's very similar to prosciutto, but with smoke undertones)
- 500 g pecorino cheese, cut into 50 pieces (the pieces are going to be rather small, but the cheese has a very strong flavour)
- 48-64 round toothpicks

- Preheat broiler.
- Lay out peach pieces on a foil-lined cookie sheet.
- Place under broiler for a minute or two, just long enough to soften the peaches (but not turn them into mush).
- Remove peaches from broiler and cool until you can handle them.
- Wrap a piece of prosciutto around a piece of peach and of cheese, fasten using a toothpick.
- Lay all pieces on serving tray.

This one is a little more delicate than the Bacon-Wrapped Dates, so it's important to be careful when handling.

No accurate pics were available on the 'Net, but I'm sure you can figure out what the final result might look like.

3 - Veggies and Dip

Alright, I'm not going to go into this whole rigmarole over Veggies and Dip, the preparation is nearly self-explanatory: cut your favourite veggies into stick-like shapes or wedges, arrange pretty-like on a tray, serve with some sort of awesome dip.

Ironically, Bryony made the dip in this case and it tasted very much like my Mom's Curry Dip, the recipe for which was featured in a post from back in August of last year. Although, in an interesting change of flavour profiles, she used balsamic vinegar instead of tarragon vinegar. I'm undecided as to which is better!

4 - Bruschetta with Pita Crisps

Well, here with the Bruschetta we have another example of an appetizer I've already featured on this blog, specifically in the same post as the Veggies and Dip. So, I'm not re-inventing that wheel either.

That being said, I've never covered the "how-to" of making pita chips. It's awfully easy!

- Preheat oven to 350 degrees Farenheit.
- Take a regular sized pita bread and cut it into 8 even pieces, then split each piece in two by tearing at the outer edge. This should leave you with 24 pieces. You can also leave the pieces whole, making 12 "double-layered" chip.
- Brush all pieces lightly with olive oil, season with salt, pepper (and anything else you like) and arrange on a cookie sheet.
- Bake in oven for about 5 minutes, until pita pieces are a light golden brown. It doesn't take long for these to burn, so pay close attention!
- Remove from heat and store in a large bag or plastic container.


5 - Cherry Tomatoes with Goat Cheese and Basil

Alright, these little bundles of awesome were about the simplest appetizer/hors d'oeuvre/tapas I've ever seen, but they're DAMN tasty. And only 3 ingredients (not counting salt and pepper)!

- 50 larger cherry tomatoes (about 3 pints), halved and "guts" spooned out. Essentially, you want to make a kind of tomato "cup" for the filling. The "guts" are excellent for anything calling for tomato liquid, e.g. gazpacho.
- 1 large log of goat cheese (300 g), softened
- 1 bunch fresh basil, cleaned and finely chopped
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Additional seasonings as desired (dry basil, oregano, chili powder, paprika, etc.)

- In a bowl, mix together basil, goat cheese and seasonings and stir until well-mixed.
- Spoon enough mix into each tomato half to fill.
- Serve on large tray (you should cover this tray with plastic wrap before transporting to avoid flying tomatoes!).

So, it's really not too tough to string together a lot of tasty goodness on a budget and in one afternoon!

The final item was a little more on the complicated side, but you know me and how much I love to smoke porcine vittle! So, with visions of catering contracts burgeoning on all sides, I took Wednesday morning to put together this collection of tastiness:

6 - Smoked Pork Tenderloin w/Blueberry BBQ Sauce on Crostini

Well, first off, I'm going to repeat myself here when it comes to the pork. I went through the process in my exposé on smoking food back in January. But there were some tweaks this time.

The first step in smoking any pork is to make sure the membrane is removed. Anything that peels off or looks hard to chew should be removed or cut away. Be careful not to overdo it a mangle your meat. For this project I used 3 tenderloins.

Next, the rub. I wanted to keep it fairly simple and not too spicy. So, in honour of the occasion, here's the rub I used:

Fringe Rub

- 2 tbsp smoked paprika
- 3 green cardamom pods, ground
- 2 cloves, ground
- 1/2 tsp Chinese five-spice powder
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp ground white pepper
- 1 tsp ground black pepper
- pinch cayenne pepper
- 1 cup brown sugar

- Mix this all together and rub into the pork tenderloins.
- Wrap tenderloins in plastic wrap and leave in the fridge for at least 8 hours (overnight).

(this next part is copy-pasted from January's post)

The next morning, remove meat from fridge and let warm up a little.
Prep fire in the smokebox and soak wood chips. The great thing about pork is that it tastes good with almost any kind of smoke flavouring it. In the case of a tenderloin, I would avoid using just hickory or mesquite, the smoke flavour would be too strong. Now, I use maple lump charcoal for everything on my BBQ and just on its own imbues a tasty smoke flavour, but it's a bit one-dimensional. For pork tenderloin, I've used either a mix of hickory and cherry (the first time, which nicely complimented the spicy rub), or apple (for the 'festive' meal). (Note: for the Fringe party, I used cherry wood).
Once your fire is going and you reach a cooking temperature of around 225-250 degrees Fahrenheit, place the tenderloin(s) inside the the grill and smoke for 1.5 to 2 hours. Wrap the tenderloin in foil, spray with a bit of apple juice (or pineapple juice), and return to smoker for another hour. Unwrap and smoke for another 30 minutes to finish. You will need to put it in the oven for 10 minutes at 350 F to "solidify" the meat. I find it too mushy right off the smoker. The thing about tenderloin is that it stays a little more pink than other cuts of pork even when it's overcooked. So, don't think that it isn't done just it's a bit pink. If the meat is no longer translucent and juices run clear when you cut it, it's done. Basically that's the rule for all pork and chicken.

This is what a smoked tenderloin looks like! Pretty, eh?

In the final hour of smoking the meat, I made the Blueberry BBQ Sauce.

Blueberry BBQ Sauce

- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 inch piece of ginger, minced
- 1 small onion, minced
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 cup frozen wild blueberries
- 4-5 drops liquid smoke
- 1/2 cup dark beer
- 1 tsp cocoa powder
- 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
- 1/2 cup HIGH QUALITY ketchup (that means homemade or organic. NOT Heinz garbage)
- 2 tbsp brown sugar
- 1 tbsp molasses
- 2 tbsp honey
- salt and pepper to taste
- 1 tsp favourite hot sauce (optional)

- In a medium saucepan, sauté garlic, ginger and onion in olive oil on medium-high heat.
- Stir in blueberries, liquid smoke, beer, cocoa, cayenne, ketchup and brown sugar.
- Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low (3-4).
- After 10 minutes, stir in molasses. Allow sauce to reduce for another 20 minutes or so.
- Stir in honey and taste to determine if you need salt, pepper and hot sauce. Add these as desired and continue to reduce for another 10 minutes.
- Remove from heat and store in glass jar. Sauce will keep for about 2 weeks in the fridge.

Following that, it was time to make the crostini. I was aiming for 50 pieces so two baguettes were sufficient.

Crostini (50 pieces)

- 2 baguette, sliced into 50 pieces
- olive oil

- Preheat oven to 400 F
- Brush olive on one side of each piece of bread.
- Bake in oven for about 10 minutes.
- Switch oven to broil and broil pieces until they turn a light golden colour.
- Cool and store in a large bag or plastic container.

Now to put everything together!

First off, I sliced the meat, albeit too thick this time, about 4-6 mm thick. If possible, slice the meat almost paper thin.

Next, take the crostini and dab a tiny bit of sauce on each piece. This will hold the meat in place on the crostini.

Place a slice or two of tenderloin on each crostini (depending on thickness of meat).

Spoon on about a 1/4-1/2 tsp of sauce on each piece.

Garnish each piece with a sprig of fresh cilantro.

Aaaaand that's it! I really wish I had pictures, it was an awfully pretty-looking hors d'oeuvre!

Well, there you go, Nick's first foray into amateur catering. And, while I haven't got anyone knocking down my door to cater their golf tournament or gallery opening (YET!), the fact that the Tenderloin was the first thing to run out (or maybe the Bacon-wrapped Dates, but that's ok, it's BACON!) made me darn proud of the work I'd done. Working with three of my favourite people to feed dozens made me even prouder!

And, as an added bonus, my efforts earned me an extra pass to a Fringe play, which is payment enough!

Let's hope this is the first expedition of many into cooking for a crowd. I'm just glad it was much less challenging than expected!

So, dear Ottawa readers, my parting words to you on this day is to GET YOUR BUTT TO THE FRINGE AND SEE SOME PLAYS! Or at least have a pint or two in the beer garden...


Monday, June 6, 2011

Just an average night at Casa Unicorn...

Hi there!

OK, before we get into today's post, I'd just like to take my hat off in solemn remembrance of my point-and-shoot camera that finally died about a week ago. What you're about to see represents one of its last efforts in catching images of edible beauty. Lesson learned: don't keep a digital camera in your shorts pocket while you're digging out the sand on a playground. Sand and electronics don't mix!

So, as those of you who are "Dude, Cook!" regulars already know, I recently moved in to a rather lovely apartment with my girlfriend Kari. One of the selling points of the place was its huge open-concept kitchen.

Kari and I are both pretty hardcore foodophiles (maybe even foodies), and we both love to cook. We also have both been blessed (or cursed) with a certain talent for taking a simple meal and kicking it up multiple notches. This has led to a lot of rather extravagent meals, some of them being competition for a gourmet restaurant meal. But I think none of them can top what we made about 3 weeks ago.

I guess it all started with fiddleheads. In case you may have forgotten my write-up on fiddleheads from last year, they're a kind of fern that grows in April and May (although the inordinately wet April meant a later start to the season). Anyhoo, we'd bought a whole bunch of them, and had to eat some of those bad boys!

Naturally, the thought process went to "Well, what do we have with it?" Steak, of course! So off we went to Aubrey's Meats in the Byward Market (our "local" butcher) and bought a couple of gorgeous New York strip steaks. Now, I'd rarely eaten blue cheese before meeting Kari, but I've since become a fan. So when she suggested picking up a nice blue to put on top of the steak, who was I to deny a lady? We had the rest of the ingredients at home waiting, so back we went to figure out how to create some culinary awesome.

Now, another area of fun we'd been having was in the area of dried mushrooms. Kari had bought this massive container from Price Club and I already had some dried porcini. So, in the interest of using up some of our dried goods (and space-occupying food in general), Kari decided she'd reconstitute (i.e. rehydrate) a bunch of them to make some sort of risotto (everyone has their speciality in the kitchen. Me, I'm all meat, sauces and stuff in a pot. Kari's ALL about starch. Risotto, polenta, bread, etc. The girl makes a meeeeeean side dish!). Meanwhile, I remembered hearing about or seeing someone using dried porcini powder as a rub for meat. So, I figured I should do the same!

With that in mind, here's the recipe for the Steak:

Porcini-Rubbed Steak à deux w.Blue Cheese

- 2x 12 oz. New York striploin steaks
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1 tsp dried porcini mushrooms, ground into powder
- salt and pepper to taste
- 50 g blue cheese (medium flavoured; not sure what kind we got to go with dinner, I think it was Danish?), sliced thin (4 small slices total, enough to almost cover the surface of the steak)

- Mix porcini powder, pepper and salt in a bowl.
- Brush olive oil on steaks
- Coat with porcini powder mix. Use clean hands to run seasoning into meat.
- Let meat sit for about 20 mins., until it reaches room temp.
- Heat grill to about 350 F
- Place steak on grill. Grill for about 5 minutes per side for medium doneness.  
- Serve topped with 2 slices of blue cheese per steak.

NOTE: To make lovely grill marks on steak, place it at a 45 degree angle to the grill 'lines' as seen to left. After about 2 minutes, lift and rotate 180 degrees. Repeat this process when you flip the steak.

This should be the end result:

Pretty, ain't it?

On the side, we had the Mushroom Risotto (I'll post the recipe some other time, once Kari gives it to me!) and an Avocado Salad (basically ripe avocado and tomato coarsely cut and mixed together with chopped Kalamta olives, capers, lemon juice and olive oil). As for the fiddleheads, I steamed them for about 10 minutes to get them tender, then sautéed with butter and garlic, finished with a bit of ground black pepper.

And here we are with the final result! Not too shabby, eh?

Even better with a lovely glass of vino and awesome company! (also note how awesome dinner can be even when you've barely unpacked your living space) 

And let's not forget dessert!

So yeah, all this to say, the difference a really nice kitchen can make in the preparation of amazing food is pretty remarkable. Not that you can't do the same in a small kitchen, it's just so much easier this way!

Alright, so enjoy it folks!  

P.S. It's called "Casa Unicorn" because when Kari and I first saw the place, we were sure it had unicorn parking out the back. Turns out it's the parking lot for an Anglican cathedral, but it was an awfully nice place nonetheless!