Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Travels in Taste - Le Boucan - Montreal

And we're back to our travelling ways...

Once in a while, it helps to have foodie friends in another city. In this case, my friend Regina recommended to me months ago that I forego some of Montreal's more well-known gourmet pig-outs like Au Pied de Cochon and Garde-Manger and try out some old-school BBQ a little off the beaten path (well of my beaten path in Montreal, at least) at a little resto called Le Boucan. Turns out it got a bit of exposure by being one of the restaurants featured on the Food Network program The Opener, but luckily I learned this fact after we got there. I think I might have had some odd bias against the place had I known it was pseudo-famous for being on TV. I know I'm weird, I accept this.

But that doesn't really matter. All I knew was after a slightly disappointing outing at Pied de Cochon back in September, mostly because of the oppressive heat due to sitting at the bar right in front of the open-concept kitchen, I was ready to take an insider's advice rather than general Internet and TV hoopla. Also, RIBS!

So, after our gourmet sojourns in Quebec City, it was back to Montreal for some good old-fashioned meat. Located on Notre-Dame West in Montreal's Saint-Henri neighbourhood, Le Boucan was definitely a step outside where I'd usually hung out in Montreal (Downtown, Old Montreal, The Plateau, etc.). Luckily it was still walking distance from our hotel, but it was a fairly long walk, which served us well because we get there right on time for our reservations. Unfortunately, no one had passed the memo on to the people sitting at the table that was supposed to be ours! So, we had to wait at the bar for a little bit, but that was fine in itself! It gave us a chance to get to know the staff and take in the whole atmosphere of the place. I really liked that it was cozy and dimly lit, it made me think of a get-together at a ski chalet.

As we were waiting, we took in the food and drink menus and I was trepidatious at the lack of microbrews at the bar: on tap was Keith's, Bud and so on. Luckily, there was an item that caught my eye: Bierbrier Premium Ale. I'd never heard of it, so I was intrigued and asked the bartender about it. Turns out the brewery is a few blocks away from the restaurant. So, yeah, that was absolutely going into my gullet. And, much to my delight, it was really freakin' good! Too bad it's only available at restaurants or by going to the brewery itself. Hopefully it'll be available a little more broadly in the future, I'd love to be able to pick up a six-pack sometime soon.

Bierbrier Ale - a local discovery

So, after enjoying a beer and meeting pretty much the whole serving staff and chatting a bit with the cooks, we finally got seated at what might have been the best seat in the house: a snug little two-person table right at the front window. I'll admit, it was chilly (Montreal still being blanketed in early March Winter grossness), but I liked being able to look out onto the street while eating.  

It didn't take much perusing to decide what the starter would be: Smoked Tomato Soup? Damn right! Oh man, it was really tasty. I can't tell whether the tomatoes actually went in the smoker or the smokiness was achieved through the use of liquid smoke, but either way it was a great variation of a classic. The cheese toast on the side didn't hurt either!

Smoked Tomato Soup!
But let's be realistic, I didn't come here for the soup. Next up was the real star of the show: the MEAT! Now, I'm a big fan of all things pork, but I also like a good hunk of BBQ chicken, so I thought it would be a good idea to go for the chicken n' rib combo. As with most BBQ places, you get to pick your own sides. So, naturally I went with cole slaw. But I had to pick another side. Hmmmmmm, what to pick, what to pick... Well, the other choices were fries (yawn), potato salad (in Winter? Naaaaah), green salad (yeah right) and cheesy corn. Wait, what? Cheesy corn!?!?!? YESSSSSSSSS!!! And hey, guess what? Kari picked the exact same sides for her full rack of ribs!

Ribs n' Chicken w. Cheese Corn and Slaw

So, once served (and the service was fantastic - friendly, polite, attentive and fast!), it was time to get down with the meaty good times!

My thoughts? Well, let's start with the sides and work our way in.

The cole slaw was a good, basic slaw. Not really mind-blowing or anything, but it served its purpose to add crunch to the meal and to make the guilt of eating a pound of meat less acute.

As for the cheesy corn, I gotta say that it tasted a bit weird. I figure they used frozen corn, which is fine, but there was a "fake cheese" kind of coating to the tongue reminiscent of Cheeze Whiz. I imagine that was something to do with how it was cooked, because I doubt they'd use that nasty stuff in a resto with a strong reputation for its food, but it is Quebec, and Quebecers like some weird food.

OK, on to the chicken. It was AWESOME! Great sauce and tenderness to the meat, loaded with smoky goodness. I do wish the skin could have been crispier, but that's an eternal lament when dealing with BBQ chicken. If there's some pit master out there who has perfected crispy-skinned BBQ chicken, I will trade favours for your secret. Lots of favours...

Finally, on to the ribs. Oh the ribs. Some of the best I've ever had and I've had a LOT of ribs. They had the perfect texture of 'fall off the bone' but not mushy. They were well smoked but not overdone. The rub was pretty basic, certainly not intended to be the star of the show (unlike when I make ribs and obsess about making the ultimate rub). But what REALLY made the ribs was the sauce. OMG, the sauce... It was delicious and unique, which are the two necessary hallmarks of a great BBQ sauce. It had a low-medium spice level, so very accessible, it had good sweetness without tasting like candy, but what set it apart was that the most forward flavour I could taste was cumin. I know what you might be thinking: "Cumin? Whoop-di-doo, it's just freakin' cumin." But in this sauce, cumin is the spice of the gods.

I was able to finish the chicken, but the ribs did both me and Kari in. We got them to go (they made for a tasty midnight snack and road food on the way home) as well as being gifted a piece of Buttermilk Pie! I can't remember if it was because we had to wait for our table, because I mentioned the blog, or because of the general awesomeness and gratitude Kari and bring to the table when we eat out. It's kinda awesome!

Buttermilk Pie - too much for our full bellies! Will eat later...
How was the Buttermilk Pie? Damn tasty, but I can't say I've become a convert. Give me Bread Pudding any time.

And so, that's it for another fun travel in taste to Montreal. And by no means coincidentally, the next day was lunch at Schwartz's before hopping the train back to Ottawa.

Life (and food) is good on the road!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Travels in Taste - Pain Béni - Quebec City

It's travel time!

Back in early March, my girlfriend and I decided to take a short trip to Quebec City. The trip was originally supposed to be a jaunt to a tropical paradise, but there were several factors that changed our minds about leaving the country for some all-inclusive dealie in Dominican Republic and a big one was our shared concern over food quality. After months of living on inspired food made by ourselves or others, the last thing we wanted was to be eating a week's worth of "Denny's" buffet food. Maybe we were being too harsh, but I'd heard enough horror stories to feed my concern.

With the plan in mind to go to Quebec City for a few days, I looked up a few suggestions on, which provides rather reliable restaurant, hotel and destination information. As I went down their list of top restaurants (#1 being a sushi place, oddly enough) all the places recommended were pretty damned expensive, with the exception of #6 (Le Lapin Sauté) and #7 (Le Pain Béni). So, I figured I would choose one of these for our Wednesday night dinner (we arrived on Tuesday and wanted to forego anything planned that night). I can't remember why I chose Pain Béni (means 'blessed bread') over Lapin Sauté, but I did. I'm very glad I did, because we tried Lapin Sauté on Thursday night and it was VERY disappointing. Great service, but the food was worse than sub-par. I'd avoid it if I were you. Instead, maybe try their partner restaurant Le Cochon Dingue - our lunch there was very good. Or maybe what happened to me was a combo of exhaustion and the cook having a bad day. Who knows?

Either way, I don't like writing posts about lousy food, so let's move on.

Something really interesting about all the restaurants in Quebec City is that they offer a 'table d'hôte'-style menu on top of à la carte. We had already partaken of this the night before our outing to Pain Béni, so we stuck with our menu items this time, but I still found that an interesting aspect of the city's culinary culture. Now, on to Pain Béni itself!
What surprised me about this place is how unassuming it was. It was just a little bistro tucked in an "auberge" (a classically styled inn) near the Chateau Frontenac where we were staying. It was very small, only a dozen small tables at most. Now it was Wednesday night in the city's low season (the Carnaval de Québec had ended a couple of weeks previously) and there wasn't much going on. We had made reservations regardless, but there was no need; there weren't a whole lot of people.

The service was nice, straight-forward and friendly. There was the slightest air of "stuffiness" at first, but once Kari poured on her charm and the server saw how much I was enjoying the food, that attitude vanished. It even wound up in an extra glass of Ice Cider for Kari! Now, on to the meal!

First up, we ordered drinks. Kari ordered a sparkling wine of some sort while I indulged in a sampling of Quebec microbrewed goodness in the form of a bottle of Dieu du Ciel's Route des épices (literally "The Spice Road"). This was a rye beer (weird, eh?) that was utterly delicious. It had a kind of rye/gingerbread kick to it that I'd never tasted in a beer before. It was a total 'find' and I hope I get the chance to try it again some time, over and over again!

Rye Beer, who knew?
So, beer in hand, it was time for the first course. Now, it must be taken into consideration that both Kari and I were suffering with very nasty colds and my appetite wasn't the most ravenous at that point. So, I decided that instead of going full bore with a meal, I was going to have two small plates in succession, saving room for dessert (which, as we'll learn, was a stroke of genius on my part).

The menu is French, 'fancy' (I saw one review call it 'fussy') and very rich - foie gras, boudin, fondue and so on... (although there were some items with more 'global' flair) So, I figured I'd go all in with the luxury. I decided to order the 'Ris de veau' (Veal Sweetbreads) and the Seared Foie Gras. For her part, Kari was focused like a laser beam on the Cheese Fondue (she'd been pining for it as soon as we decided we were going to Quebec). It worked out well since it was a pretty big pot of fondue so there wasn't any period of either of us waiting for the other to finish eating.

The Fondue was pretty tasty (of course I sampled some) and I liked the added touch: (from the menu description) Quebec cheese fondue with apple cider, served with country loaf pieces and fresh fruits. I think Kari was happy:

Yay Fondue!
So, on my end, I decided to go with the classic French glandular/organic feast. First up was Ris de veau croustillant, Crème de topinambour, tombée d’épinards au beurre noisette, noix d’acajou. Which means Crispy Veal Sweetbreads, Sunchoke Purée, Spinach in Brown Butter and Cashews. Now, in case y'all didn't know, sweetbreads are NOT brains (although they look similar) nor are they testicles. They are, in fact, the thymus gland, usually of veal, young beef , lamb or pork. Also, sunchokes are also called Jerusalem artichokes (but aren't artichokes - it's complicated) and are very sweet.

So, how was my first foray into the world of glands? Really freakin' tasty, actually! The sweetbreads themselves were simply prepared in a cornmeal crust, having a rich yet oddly bitter flavour. I really don't know how to describe it. There are elements of the flavour of organ meat, but lighter, even fluffier, if that makes sense. Either way, I thought them to be delicious, especially when offset by the sweetness of the sunchoke purée, the richness of the spinach and the nutty goodness of the cashews. All in all, a decadent treat that I'll remember for years to come, especially paired up with the Route des épices beer, which just made the whole flavour profile more striking.

Tasty glands...
Up next was the Foie gras poêlé, purée de courge, pickle de figue, ail noir et mélasse, toast de pain d’épices. Translated: Seared foie gras, squash purée, pickled fig, black garlic and molasses, and spiced bread. Wow, what can I say? It's muthafreakin' FOIE GRAS! Just about the most unctuous, decadent food item in existence. And paired with the black garlic-molasses purée? Fugedaboudit... SO GOOOOOOOD!!! If I have one complaint about this dish, it's that the spiced bread was too strong, it overpowered anything else. It was tasty, but not a good element in this dish. White toast would have been better! But, everything else was a symphony of flavour when put together. I'm definitely going to have to experiment with black garlic... The server recommended a Pinot Noir pairing so I enjoyed a glass of Blackstone Pinot Noir out of California. It was a really tight pairing, the wine didn't overpower the food and was given a lot more flavour thanks to the food, which is exactly how good wine pairings should work, right?

Unfortunately, I was too busy enjoying this plate that I totally forgot to take a picture of it... Oops.

Next up, dessert!

So, once again, Kari was easy to convince as to her choice of dessert - they had a Lemon Crème Brulée. Me, I wasn't quite as sure until I saw "aged cheddar ice cream" as part of one of the selections. Cue the brakes! SKKKKKRREEEE... Cheddar. Ice Cream. YES!!! So, I ordered Pomme “Cortland” et courge confite, érable et sauge, glace au cheddar de l’Île-aux-Grues, crumble aux épices, espuma à l’érable. In English: an apple and squash layered confit (essentially a layered square of thinly sliced apple and squash baked - I think - with maple syrup and sage), cheddar ice cream(!), a spiced crumble and maple 'foam'. I wasn't sure what to make of what was being described on the menu, but I HAD to try it if only for the ice cream.

When it arrived, I was surprised to discover that it was essentially a deconstructed apple pie. The 'confit' was the filing, while the crumble served as the crust. And the ice cream served equal purposes. I was a little worried when I saw "maple foam" on the English menu, I was worried about getting one of those molecular gastronomy foams that looks a bit like spit. Luckily, what they called 'foam' was more like a mousse. Phew!
So, how did it taste? OH MY GOD!!!! Everything was amazingly delicious. The confit was firm and tasty, the crumble a perfect crunchy bite, the maple mousse light and sweet and rich. And then there's the ice cream. Wow. Just... wow... Imagine the best cheesecake-style ice cream but instead of some sort of questionable cream cheese, you're using premium extra-old cheddar. It was one of the tastiest things I've eaten in a long long time.

Paired with a glass of Ice Cider, a Quebecois speciality, it made the evening complete. And I'm not a big dessert guy!
Deconstructed Apple Pie. MORE PLEASE!

So there you have it, our night out at Pain Béni! I'd say give it a try if ever you're in Quebec City. That being said, there are so many restaurants in Old Quebec that this might only be one of many spectacular gourmet outings. All I know is that I am very, very happy we decided to go there.

That's it for now! Stay tuned for the next Travel in Taste where we head back to Montreal to see what an up and coming BBQ joint has to offer!


Sunday, April 8, 2012

Smoked Fusion - Thai BBQ

And we're back!

Over the course of my-ever evolving exploration of BBQ, and cooking in general, I find myself looking beyond the confines of tradition to other continents and cuisines for elements to incorporate with classic techniques. We generally call this 'fusion cuisine' and the type of cuisine that I go back to most often is Thai. There's something so satisfying about Thai food; the richness of coconut milk, the spice of a good curry paste, the brightness of lime leaf, the pure tastiness of Thai basil, and so on; these all make for such delicious dishes that I could argue that Thai is one of my favourite cuisines. The only problem is that, like all great cuisines, it can over-saturate the market and become almost pedestrian and boring as it goes from exotic treat to common mall food court offering. While that's fine for a quick lunch, it makes it less special somehow. Or, to paraphrase the hipsters out there, "I liked Thai food before it was cool."

And maybe that's why I recently looked to apply these flavours in new and interesting ways, specifically using the smoker. Over the past year, I've been coming across dried versions ingredients commonly found in Thai cooking. First it was dried lime leaf, next was lemongrass powder, then I found dried galangal. Somewhere in the back of my mind, mischievous (and brilliant) voices were whispering make a ruuuuuuub, make a ruuuuuuuuub. Who am I to ignore those crazy voices? They usually know of what they speak! Just as a reminder, a rub is a mix of a bunch of seasonings and (usually) sugar that you rub all over a piece of meat before smoking or slow cooking it and you do this a day or so in advance to let the rub penetrate the meat. The 15-year old in me is having giggling fits right now over the terminology...

So, here it is!

Thai Spice Rub (to be used on any kind of meat)


- 6-7 dried lime leaves
- 1 tsp cumin
- 1 tsp coriander
- 1 tsp lemongrass powder
- 1 tsp galangal powder (I had dried galangal pieces and it was really hard to grind into powder myself if you can find it pre-powdered, use that!) or ginger powder
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp black pepper
- 3-4 arbol chilies (or other dried hot chillis)
- 3-4 guajillo chilies (optional)
- 1 star anise pod (optional)
- good pinch cinnamon
- good pinch turmeric
- 1/2 cup brown sugar


- Take all unpowdered elements (lime leaves, chilies, start anise) and grind into powder using spice grinder or mortar and pestle.
- Mix all spices together, add brown sugar and stir until well-mixed.
- Rub on meat and let sit overnight.

Don't let the light colour fool you, she's a spicy one! This is pre-brown sugar being added

I used this rub on some beef ribs, but I made the mistake of getting short ribs and didn't smoke them for the 6-7 hours I should have, instead only cooking them for just under 5 hours. The result was that the meat was undercooked and tough. I even tried using a technique I'd seen on TV where the cook smoked the ribs above a pan of really hot water with some carrots, celery and onion, but whatever effect it may have had was wasted because of the short smoking time. Dammit. That being said, they were tasty (especially with the BBQ Sauce whose recipe is coming), just not much fun to eat...

Luckily, it was beef and there were no potential health effects. But, to be clear, if you're stuck with beef short ribs, smoke those suckers for AT LEAST 6 hours. Next time I'll look harder for beef back ribs which will likely take less time.

Trying out a new twist on smoking ribs.

Now that we've dealt with the cooking of the meat using Thai flavours, let's look at how we can use these flavours in making a delicious BBQ sauce for our ribs. I think the key in making this sauce unique is the use of coconut milk and using a few Asian ingredients to replace traditional American BBQ sauce elements. For example, instead of using cider vinegar, I used rice wine vinegar; instead of Worcestershire sauce, I used fish sauce, mango instead of onion, and so on... The sauce still relies on the fundamental sweeteners - brown sugar, molasses and honey, but the flavour was nothing like any previous BBQ I've  made or tasted.

Red Curry BBQ Sauce


- 1 398 ml can coconut milk
- 1 tbsp red curry paste
- 1 cup chopped tomato (or 1/2 cup ketchup)
- 1/4 cup rice wine vinegar
- 1 tbsp fish sauce
- 1 cup mango chunks or purée
- 1/2 cup pineapple juice
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 1 tsp coriander, ground
- 1 tsp cumin, ground
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 3-4 drops liquid smoke
- 2 tsp molasses
- juice of half a lime
- 1 tbsp honey
- 1/4 cup chopped Thai basil


- Heat saucepan on medium heat and add half the coconut milk and all of the curry paste.
- Heat and stir until coconut milk begins to thicken (5-10 minutes).
- Add tomato, vinegar, fish sauce, mango and pineapple juice. Mix all ingredients well, reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for 10 minutes.
- Add brown sugar, cumin, coriander, salt and liquid smoke. Simmer for another 5 minutes.
- Add molasses, lime juice and rest of coconut milk. Increase to medium-high heat and cook for another 10 minutes. The coconut milk should start roiling and thickening at this time.
- Remove sauce from heat and add honey.
- Allow sauce to cool to about 100 degrees Fahrenheit and stir in Thai basil.

Now, you can glaze your ribs with this sauce by cooking it on the grill, or, if you're like me, pour it directly over the meat. What really made this sauce exceptional was the added depth of the coconut milk, it was phenomenal! I wasn't sure coconut milk would work in BBQ sauce, but my doubts were completely and deliciously alleviated.

I can't think of classier way to serve a mess of sauce.

So, there you have it, a fun fusion of Southern BBQ cooking with Thai flavours. Looking back, while I may have screwed up the ribs somewhat, coming up with the sauce more than made up for it. As a side for this meal, I made a quick salad of sweet potato, wild rice, cilantro and a lime-based dressing. That recipe will be featured in a future post covering vegetarian goodness.

Until next time, don't be afraid to fuse your food!


Thursday, April 5, 2012

Eureka! - Surprising discoveries in the kitchen


As I've said before, one of the things I love about cooking is the chance to experiment. You can experiment with new flavour combos, new ingredients, new methods, and just generally try out anything your mad scientist brain comes up with, and the mad scientist approach is fine if you're going for over-the-top combinations. But often other discoveries are far more subtle and are sometimes a matter of taking little risks with ingredients and getting startlingly good results. One case is finding a new ingredient that brings out unique flavour combinations. Another is pairing ingredients that you wouldn't think work well together, but somehow do. There's also trying a few new and unexpected, but reliable, twists on an old classic and yielding results that go far beyond your expectations.

So here's the scenario: it was an average winter's night and my girlfriend and I had decided to go with a comforting "chicken, potatoes and vegetable" trio for dinner. Now, I was out shopping for dinner supplies, when I happened upon a new ingredient that really got a ball rolling in my head. It was at La Bottega Nicastro and they were selling something called 'Nduja. 'Nduja is a spicy spreadable salami. It has the flavours of a hot Soppressata salami, but is soft, almost like using sausage meat. I looked it up online and it turns out its origin is that it was a kind of an Italian take on Andouille sausage, a classic smoked French sausage, most often seen in Cajun cooking. However, 'Nduja and Andouille taste completely different; Andouille is smoky and full of herbs, 'Nduja is fiery and tangy.

'Nduja on, um, bread...
 Anyway, now that I had my weird salami to play with (wait, that sounds wrong...), I decided I was going to make a stuffed chicken breast, mixing the 'Nduja with some bocconcini and black pepper as the stuffing, coating the chicken in in bread crumbs and baking it all. The end result surprised me in that it looked very much like a sort of reverse version of an old classic with a lovely little twist on its flavours, but still tasting somewhat familiar. What am I talking about? Well, with its vibrant red colour, the 'Nduja stuffing looked a lot like (and surprisingly tasted like) the tomato-parmesan sauce/coasting we find on Chicken Parmesan. So that brings us to our first recipe.

1 - Food in Disguise - 'Reverse Chicken Parmesan' - Chicken Breast Stuffed with 'Nduja and Bocconcini

Serves 2


- 2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
- 1 egg, beaten
- 1/2 cup breadcrumbs or panko
- 2-3 tbsp 'Nduja
- 2-3 bocconcini balls (if balls are about 1 inch thick, more if using the smaller kind)
- 1 tsp black pepper


- Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit
- Carefully cut a slit along the side of the chicken breast, creating a pocket for the stuffing.
- In a bowl, mix together 'Nduja, bocconcini and black pepper with a fork. You'll have to mash the mixture somewhat forcefully to really soften up the cheese, so use a sturdy fork. As with anything, feel free to add some other spices or herbs to the stuffing; I would bet that some fresh basil would be nice. I don't recommend adding salt as the 'Nduja is pretty darn salty as is.
- Stuff each chicken breast with half the 'Nduja mixture.
- Coat each breast with egg and dredge in breadcrumbs until fully covered. (I forgot the egg part when I first made this, hence why in the picture, the chicken looks kinda naked).
- In a baking dish or on a baking sheet, place chicken in oven and bake for about 20 minutes, until coating is golden, stuffing is bubbly and chicken is cooked through.
- Serve hot with broccoli and potatoes (recipes to follow).

Next on our adventure in flavour discovery we have what I'd like to call 'unlikely pairings' in the flavour department. Think about food combos that you would never think to put together but when tried, they're awesome! Chocolate and bacon is a good example; you wouldn't think they go together, but we all know now that they work wonderfully together! Just ask Homer Simpson! There's also blueberries and blue cheese (Kari gave me that one), not to mention peanut butter and Sriracha (easy Satay!). I had a friend who refused to eat fruit and meat together because she just couldn't get her head around the concept. Too bad she had to miss out on Bacon-Wrapped Peaches! But I'm sure she isn't alone in her aversion to 'odd' food combos.

OK, so clearly bacon goes with everything. But broccoli, on the other hand, doesn't really go with a whole lot of other flavours; cheese sauce, beer, slivered almonds, there really isn't a whole lot, is there? And yet, with a the simple decision to add toasted pecans to a side dish of steamed broccoli and sauté the lot, culinary history was made. Well at least, it was made in my kitchen! As I was tossing in the pecans, I kept thinking this NEEDS something... What goes with broccoli that also goes with pecans? Now, I drew a blank when thinking of pairing something with broccoli, but I then thought about pecans and praline and what flavours praline and then, SKA-BOW!!!! It hit me! VANILLA!!!!! Now, I know what you're thinking, Dude, vanilla? As if! I'm outta here... But I kid you not, it works! It works BEAUTIFULLY! What's the worst part about broccoli? The bitterness, right? Well, really good vanilla extract (or vanilla bean I suppose) does a wonderful job of getting through the bitterness and adds an unexpected sweetness that broccoli has been missing for a long, long time. Of course, an added touch of butter helped it all come together as well.

A culinary odd couple!

So, here's how to put together this surprisingly good side dish:

2 - Odd Flavour Combos - Broccoli with Pecans and Vanilla

Serves 2


- 1 head broccoli, cut into florets
- 1/2 cup pecan halves or pieces
- 1 tsp pure vanilla extract (you really don't want to use the fake stuff. Trust me.)
- 1 tsp butter
- salt and pepper to taste


-Toast pecans in a frying pan on medium-high heat or in the oven (which is hopefully already on and cooking chicken!). Be careful to ensure they don't burn! Set aside once toasted.
- Fill a pot with about half an inch/one centimetre of water and set to boil.
- Once water is boiling, steam broccoli for two or three minutes, until it's a vivid green.
- Strain broccoli in a colander and rinse with cold water. Set broccoli aside until chicken is nearly done.
- Once ready to serve, set a frying pan on medium-high heat and melt butter.
- Sauté broccoli and pecans in butter for a minute or two.
- Drizzle vanilla over top and continue cooking for another minute. Serve hot.

If broccoli and vanilla qualifies as our "never would have expected it to be good but it is" entry, our next exploration is along the lines of "why have I never tried this before?!?!?" It's amazing how we get caught up in the idea that the 'old favourites' have to follow a simple flavour profile. But they don't have to! Who says Shepherd's Pie have to be the same old boring beef, potatoes and corn? I don't!

And then there's our old friend Mashed Potatoes. Potatoes, milk and butter... whee... And yet we all have grown to be so comforted by our traditional flavour combos that we rarely think to get creative with these foodstuffs. Well, luckily most of us have a fridge and pantry full of flavours to raid. Now, think of potatoes and what might accentuate the flavour of your old school mash. Maybe some chili powder? Maybe some dried and powdered mushrooms? Bacon (duh)? That's what's great about potatoes: they're like a blank canvass for cooking. In this case, my own thoughts were of light and fresh and bold. So, I was hit with the inspiration of using lemon juice and rosemary in the mash. And then my inner hedonist added blue cheese... that jerk!

3 - Tweaking Comfort - Smashed Potatoes with Lemon, Rosemary and Blue Cheese

Serves 2


- 2-3 large potatoes, cleaned and cut into large chunks (peel if you want, I never do)
- 1/2 tsp fresh or dried rosemary leaves
- 1/4 cup milk
- 2 tsp butter
- 2 tsp blue cheese, crumbled (I prefer a milder cheese, like Danish blue)
- juice of 1/4 lemon
- salt and pepper to taste


- Set a pot of water to boil. Once boiling, add potatoes and boil for about 10-15 minutes, until potatoes are tender (if they can be easily pierced with a fork, they're ready).
- Drain potatoes in a strainer and return to empty pot.
- Stir in milk, butter, rosemary, lemon, salt and pepper.
- Mash roughly with a potato masher of sturdy fork. I like a rough texture (hence 'smashed' instead of mashed). If you really want a smoother texture, keep mashing until smooth. This might make the tougher texture of the rosemary stand out too much though.
- Serve with chicken and broccoli

A plate full of discoveries! - "Reverse Chicken Parmesan" (Chicken stuffed with 'Nduja and Bocconcini), Broccoli with Vanilla and Toasted Pecans, and Smashed Potatoes with Lemon, Rosemary and Blue Cheese.

And there you have it! An entire meal full of surprises and none of which are terribly difficult to put together. I hope you enjoy one or all of these dishes in the near future.