Friday, November 30, 2012

Watermelon Feta Salad with Cucumber & Tomato

Made with some of summer’s juiciest fruits and vegetables, this vibrant Watermelon & Feta Salad is as refreshing as it is nutritious. For the prettiest presentation, I like to use small grape tomatoes of various colours and shapes. The salty sweet combination of watermelon and feta is exquisite, and the intervening moments between mixing and serving the ingredients is when the magic happens. The juicy crispness of the watermelon turns sweeter, its flavour amplified by the salty feta combined with crunchy cucumbers, sweet grape tomatoes, salty black olives and fragrant mint and basil, finished with a drizzle of rich balsamic vinegar and extra virgin olive oil. This salad has become one of my favourite summer salads, although it is satisfying anytime of the years. Feta works brilliantly in this delicious salad, however it could also be made with tangy Silton, Roquefort or St Agur also, for added complexity.

Watermelon Feta Salad with Cucumber, Basil, Mint & Tomato
Serves 4

2 1/2 cups cubed seedless watermelon
2 cups cherry or grape tomatoes, cut in half
8 oz feta cheese, crumbled or cut into cubes

1/2 english cucumber, peeled, seeded and cut into cubes
1/4 cup fresh basil and mint leaves, washed and left whole
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 tbsp balsamic or sherry vinegar
Maldon salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/2 cup black olives, pitted - optional

Combine watermelon, tomatoes, feta cheese and cucumber in a large bowl. Drizzle with the extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar, then sprinkle with the fresh herbs, salt and pepper. Toss the salad gently using your hands to prevent the watermelon from breaking into small pieces. Don't refrigerate and serve immediately within half an hour or so.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Crispy Peking Duck & Vegetable Spring Rolls

I treated myself to these delicious Crispy Peking Duck & Vegetable Spring Rolls served with Thai sweet chile dipping sauce and pickled ginger when I last visited Michael's on East in Sarasota. Hot, succulent and delectably crispy, these Spring Rolls are made with Phyllo pastry and baked in the oven, for a leaner, healthier appetizer option than the usual deep fried recipes. Downright delicious and completely addictive, they're the perfect hors d'oeuvre whether you're hosting a large party or casual outdoor get together. They're easy to eat, easy to make, can be prepared in advance and best of all, barbecued Peking duck is easily available in Chinatown and most Asian grocery stores, such as T&T Market in Toronto. If duck ruffles your feathers, you can also substitute chicken, shrimp, pork or go completely vegetarian by adding some sautéed shiitake mushrooms, bamboo shoots and bean sprouts. 

Crispy Peking Duck & Vegetable Spring Rolls
Serves 4

1 lb barbecued Peking duck
1/3 cup rice vermicelli
1/2 cup green onions, finely chopped
1/2 cup cilantro, finely chopped
1 carrot, grated
1 tsp fresh ginger, finely grated
1/2 cup Napa cabbage, shredded
2 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp Hoisin sauce
1 package phyllo pastry
2 tbsp vegetable oil

Preheat oven to 375°F. Pull the duck meat apart and on a cutting board, julienne finely with the skin and place in a large bowl. Place the rice vermicelli in lukewarm water and soak for 5 minutes. Drain the noodles and mix with the duck meat. Add the chopped green onions, cilantro, ginger, carrot, cabbage and soy and hoisin sauce, mixing gently then set aside. 

Lay the sheets of phyllo pastry on cutting board, cut them in half and cover with a wet kitchen towel. Gently remove one sheet and place on a work surface, and brush with oil. Place 1/3 cup of duck mixture on the phyllo in a single line and roll, closing the ends. Brush lightly with oil and place on a baking sheet. Repeat until all the filling is finished. Place the spring rolls in oven for 15 to 20 minutes or until golden brown. Serve with store-bought Thai Sweet Chili Sauce or Asian Dipping sauce shown below.

Asian Dipping Sauce
Makes about 4 cups

1/2 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup lemon juice, freshly squeezed
1 cup rice wine vinegar
2 tbsp green tabasco sauce
1/3 cup lime juice, freshly squeezed
1 1/2 tbsp fresh ginger, finely minced
1 1/2 tbsp red onion, finely minced
2 tsp red Thai chillies, finely chopped
2 tsp cilantro, finely chopped

Whisk all ingredients together in a large bowl and set aside until ready to serve with the Spring Rolls.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Steamed Salmon Trout with Ginger, Orange & Dill

Baking whole salmon trout in aluminum foil allows for a delicious and healthy meal with little or no cleanup afterwards. This simple technique traps moisture inside the foil and prevents the fish from drying out, and is ideal for infusing the salmon trout with any selection of your favourite aromatics, such as sliced lemon, orange, ginger, garlic, soy, teriyaki or hoisin sauce, fresh herbs like cilantro, rosemary or fresh dill. I like to add a 'glug' of Japanese sake, for a richer brighter flavour and provides the base for a fragrant sauce, perfect for spooning over rice or steamed vegetables. Small whole salmon trout are inexpensive and the perfect size for serving as individual portions, although Sea Bream, Pickerel or Sardines are also excellent, and can be grilled outdoors or in the oven during the chillier winter months. Served with steamed vegetables or a simple green salad, Steamed Salmon Trout with Ginger, Orange & Dill is simple, healthy and delicious, and ideal as art of a calorie controlled diet.

Steamed Salmon Trout with Ginger, Orange & Dill
Serves 2

2 small whole salmon trout, cleaned and scaled
1 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 2-inch knob of fresh ginger, thinly sliced
1 orange, cut into 1/4"slices
1/4 cup cilantro, washed and coarsely chopped
1/4 cup Japanese Sake wine
2 tbsp cup canola or extra-virgin olive oil, for brushing

Preheat the oven to 425°F.

Rinse the salmon under cold running water and pat dry. Cut two large pieces of foil long and wide enough to encase each salmon when folded over the center and folded up on the ends. Position one piece of foil on a large baking sheet and brush the surface with oil, to prevent the salmon from sticking once steamed.

Place one whole salmon trout in the center of the foil, sprinkle with salt and fresh cracked black pepper, then insert two slices of orange into the cavity along with slivers of fresh ginger and a handful of roughly chopped cilantro. Crimp the corners of the foil up to form a boat and pour a glug of Sake around the fish. Top the salmon with some sprigs of dill then fold the edges of the foil up over the salmon and crimp to seal, creating an airtight package. Repeat the process with the second salmon trout.

Bake the salmon for 25-40 minutes depending on the size of the fish, or until the flesh is just cooked through, but still moist. To serve, unfold the foil wrapped salmon and using a large metal spatula, lift the fish onto a warmed serving plate. Garnish with some extra dill and slices of orange and serve with a bone bowl on the side. Simple, healthy and delicious with an arugula and mixed green salad or steamed bok choy.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Pearl Harbourfront: A Delicious Dim Sum Treat

A culinary gem nestled away on the second floor of Queen’s Quay Terminal in downtown Toronto, Pearl Harbourfront has been tantalizing the taste buds of Toronto foodies, and those who appreciate great Chinese cuisine, for almost 30 years. Singled out by enRoute Magazine as one of the 'Top 100 Restaurants in Canada' for the past decade, it's for good reason. Their Peking Duck, Rainbow Chopped in Crystal Fold, and Braised Lobster in Homemade Sauce are amazing, but what makes Pearl Harbourfront a beacon for many, is their exceptional Dim Sum, which literally means: to touch the heart. 

Endless pots of hot green tea are complimentary at Pearl Harbourfront.
Leaving the lid balanced on the side of the tea pot attracts a server's attention, 
and indicates a request for more hot water in the tea pot

Originally a Cantonese custom, dim sum is inextricably linked to the Chinese tradition of "yum cha" or drinking tea. As tea's ability to aid in digestion and cleanse the palate became known, teahouses, sprung up to accomodate weary travelers journeying along the famous Silk Road thousands of years ago, and began adding a variety of snacks, and so the tradition of dim sum was born.

Hot mustard and spicy chili sauce are set at each table, as condiments for dim sum

Executive Chef Gao Hui Feng has been creating these little culinary gems for almost 20 years, bless his heart. During that time, he's developed a dedicated following of Dim Sum devotées who take the escalator up to this culinary gem every weekend. Offering a more sophisticated dining experience than many other Chinese restaurants in the city, Pearl Harbourfront is a sanctuary of casual elegance. A bright modern interior with blonde woods, cream-hued walls, crisp white linens and floor-to-ceiling windows with fabulous views of Lake Ontario and the islands, the restaurant offers Dim Sum seven days a week, with a selection of over sixty delectable dishes that are served in steamer baskets and small plates, from steamed and pan fried dumplings, potstickers and rice noodles to sticky rice in lotus leaf, stir fried vegetables and a variety of innovative desserts. 

Tsingtao is one of the more popular beers offered at Pearl Harbourfront

Dim Sum is tracked on a card at the table, with small, medium 
or large dishes marked by servers who bring the Dim Sum by on carts

One of Pearl's servers with tempting Dim Sum brought around on carts

Prices range from $3.75 for a bamboo basket of Crispy Spring Rolls or Steamed Chicken Feet; $5.50 for medium dishes such as Steamed Spinach Dumpling, Scallop Dumpling or Crispy Spring Rolls; $6.00 for large dishes including Siu Mai, Vegetable Cheung Foon and Sticky Rice in Lotus Leaf; to $7.50 for special plates which include Deep Fried Stuffed Crab Claw or Fried Beef Short Ribs with Honey Black Pepper Sauce. The best way to sample as many dim sum dishes as possible, is to bring a group of friends and order to your heart's content, which is exactly what we did on a chilly November afternoon.

Crispy Shrimp Rolls

Steamed Scallop Dumplings

Siu Mai Pork Dumplings Crowned with Shrimp

Baby Bok Choy with Braised Garlic and Oyster Sauce

Spinach & shrimp Dumplings

Pan-Fried Bean Curd Dumplings with Shrimp, Onion and Chinese Vegetables

Stir-Fried Long Bean with Black Bean Sauce

Pan Fried Chicken Dumplings

Deep-Fried Seafood Dumpling with Scallop and Shrimp

Fried Shrimp Toasts

Mixed Vegetable Cheung Foon - rice noodles wrapped around chinese vegetable 
and served with a sweet and salty soy sauce

Fried Garlic Shrimp Dumplings

A resilient sailor out on Lake Ontario on a cold November afternoon

Chinese Potstickers
Makes about 48 dumplings

1/2 cup finely chopped Bok choy leaves
1/2 cup finely chopped Napa cabbage or Sui Choy
1/4 cup finely chopped green onion
1/4 cup chopped water chestnuts
1 lb ground pork
1 tsp light soy sauce
1 tsp dark soy sauce
2 tsp Chinese rice wine or dry sherry
1 tsp Asian sesame oil
1/8 tsp white pepper
1 package wonton or gyoza wrappers, which is about 48 wrappers
1 tbsp cornstarch mixed with 2 tbsp water and 1 egg white

Combine the first 10 ingredients in a large bowl, using your fingers to mix everything together. This can be prepared ahead of time and stored in a sealed container in the refrigerator until ready to use.

Fill each wrapper with a heaping teaspoon of the pork filling, by adding the mixture into the middle of each potsticker wrapper, using your finger to spread it out toward the sides. Be sure not to overfill or to spread the filling too close to the edge of the wrapper.

To fold the dumpling, moisten the edges of the wrapper with the egg white or mixture of water and cornstarch — this makes it easier to seal. Gently lift the edges of the moistened wrapper over the filling, crimp the edges of the wrapper and pinch together to seal. Be sure to cover the remaining wrappers with a damp cloth to keep them from drying out while filling and folding the rest of the dumplings.

Heat a wok or nonstick skillet on medium-high heat and add 1 tablespoon oil. Add 10 to 12 potstickers at a time, and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, until the bottom is browned. Add 1/3 cup water, cover, and steam the dumplings until the liquid is absorbed, about 5 minutes. Remove and then cook the remainder of the dumplings.

These potstickers can be served alone, with hot chili oil, or with soy sauce combined with freshly chopped ginger or a few drops of Asian sesame oil. Heaven!

Monday, November 26, 2012

Sarasota Farmer's Market: A Locavore's Paradise

Established in 1979, The Sarasota Farmers Market is a non-profit organization with a 30-year tradition of providing Sarasota with local produce, plants and prepared foods. Held every Saturday from 7am to 2pm in downtown Sarasota around the area of Lemon and Main, the market is buzzing with local residents and visitors who are drawn to the area, taking advantage of the pedestrian friendly streets, fresh produce and popular food trucks, that cater to everything from hot Grouper Sandwiches, authentic Argentinian Empanadas, fresh ground coffee and local fresh grown fruits and vegetables.

LuLu's fresh cut flowers

Open all year-round, there's never been a worry about seasonal availability in this temperate and fertile area of Florida. The Farmer's Market expands in numbers also during the cooler local growing season and tourist months, even in November, when there was everything available from fresh fruits and vegetables, to organic meats, local seafood, fragrant baked goods, beautiful flowers, crafts, street performers, homeopathic remedies, and pungent artisan cheeses. This was the first time I had discovered this local gem, and I was overwhelmed with the quality, scale and popularity of the market — and all outside of one of my favourite shops, Sur La Table, one of the premiere kitchenware retailers in the U.S.

Maggie's Seafood with daily specials including shrimp, scallops, lobster tails, mussels, 
clams, fresh fish, stone crab, soups and of course, Grouper Sandwiches!

Argentinian Empanadas by Sarasota's Peperonata Pasta

The Java Dawg's Double Decker Bus Coffee Shop with unique daily choices of brewed coffee, seasonal speciality drinks, fresh baked muffins, pastries, crepes, and free wi-fi

Barbie-Lu's Sassy Salsa Stand

We bought some lovely fresh vegetables at Kinsey's Produce, a family business, owned and operated by Philip, Debbie, and Travis Kinsey, who, on any given Saturday at the Farmers Market, serve fresh cored pineapple and cold coconut drinks, along with an enormous variety of local and seasonal fruits and veggies. They also prepare gorgeous mixed vegetable kabobs, perfect for grilling outdoors with fresh Florida seafood.

Local beets, kale and lettuce at Kinsey's Produce

Local Bradenton cilantro, mint, parsley, basil and fresh vegetables

One of the highlights of the market for me was The Pineapple Man at Kinsey's Produce. A lovely, gentle and friendly man, he prepares local pineapples and coconuts while you wait. While some eagerly awaited fresh coconuts, which he opened and served with a straw, I had my eye on his sweet and juicy fresh pineapples. He carefully picked out a perfect pineapple, set it on a mechanized corer, pulled dow the lever and voilà, wonderfully ripe, sweet and unbelievably juicy fresh Florida pineapple. From now on, whenever I'm in Sarasota, he's going to be one of my first stops. And of course, the Sarasota Farmers Market.

The Pineapple Man at the corner of 1st & Lemon

In goes the pineapple...

...and out comes our breakfast!

Friday, November 23, 2012

Eat Here: Casual Gulf Coast Cuisine on Anna Maria

Over the past decade, Sean Murphy has opened a handful of restaurants, most recently a mini-chain of three restaurants simply labeled Eat Here, serving casual and whimsical comfort food that seems to have caught on with local diners, with the newest slated to open on Siesta Key in January. Serving an upscale-casual Gulf Coast menu and craft beers, Eat Here Restaurant & Bar is the latest brainchild of Murphy, owner of the celebrated Beach Bistro on Anna Maria Island, one of the best restaurants in Florida. However, Eat Here is not some watered down version of Beach Bistro, rather it has its own identity which is complementary to and independent from Beach Bistro.  

Sean Murphy at Anna Maria Island's Eat Here
Photo by Mark Wemple

Eat Here, Murphy says, offers smaller plates than Beach Bistro, and does it in a more relaxed atmosphere. The Eat Here menus, for example, are printed on regular paper, stapled together and given to customers on clipboards. The napkins are cotton kitchen towels. “It has a cool and hip feel,” says Murphy, “but it’s still casual and welcoming.” 

The outdoor patio in front of the Anna Maria Eat Here location

With a brightly coloured, whimsically decorated restaurant with indoor and outdoor seating, a full bar, individual and community tables and an extensive menu, Eat Here is focused on providing a casual, comfortable, quick-turn dining experience with an emphasis on quality. Although Sean’s enjoyed the challenge of opening the three Eat Here locations, after the Siesta Key spot is done, he’s going to take a break. “To do one restaurant well is an accomplishment. To do two or three is easier than doing the first one, because you have a pool of trained staff to draw from,” says Murphy. “But we’re going to stop here for a while, sit back and decide if we want to do something else. There may be a bakery in my future. It would make good business sense, baking everything for all the other spots.”

The Plowman Platter, a chef-made duckling mousse paté with apple-smoked cheddar
mixed berries, apples and house pickled veggies 

One of the features defining the concept behind Eat Here is fast service, which means dishes are brought to the table when completed in the kitchen. Dishes are offered in a variety of small plates that are perfect for sharing and moderately priced for everyday dining. Menu selections include Port-Braised Pot Roast, Lobstercargot, Smoked Salmon & Crème Fraiche Pizza and New Orleans-style Seafood Stew. This evening we shared three appetizers including The Plowman Platter, a chef-made duckling mousse paté with apple-smoked cheddar, mixed berries, apples and house pickled veggies. 

Tempura’d beets lightly battered, with chevre and crème fraiche  

Downright delicious but generous enough to be considered an entrée. We also enjoyed Tempura’d Beets which were lightly battered and served with a chevre and crème fraiche sauce. Wonderfully warm on the inside with a lighter than air tempura batter made them completely addictive. We polished off those little critters, and nibbled on a bowl of Pan-Cooked Mussels kissed with a beurre blanc sauce and topped with frites. We were full already but remembered we had our entrées still to arrive. Note to self: next time just order appetizers.

Pan-cooked mussels kissed with a beurre blanc sauce and topped with frites 


Serendipity Salad with fresh greens, cheeses, croutons, tomato, 
garden veggies and anything “salady” that grabs us

St. Loius Cut Shortribs, crisped in the fryer, tossed with herbed garlic butter 
and bell pepper-papaya jam  

Each evening there is a selection of fresh fish including Domestic Maine Salmon crusted with horseradish cream and fire roasted or pan seared and finished with key lime butter and tropical fruit salsa, and Fresh Catch of the day which can be served with key lime dill butter and capers or tropical fruit salsa. Tonight the fresh catch was Mahi Mahi, with both entrées also accompanied by an Arugula Salad and baked ramekin of Corn Pudding. 

Fresh catch of the day, which tonight was Mahi Mahi with a choice 
of key lime dill butter and capers or tropical fruit salsa 

A restaurant’s success is defined not only by the quality of the food but by the quality of the concept and the team. Sean Murphy’s concept of casual Florida-style cuisine and quality produce coupled with a committed team is proving to be yet another of his winning recipes. Eat Here has a great vibe with a casual and friendly atmosphere with service that is fast, friendly, and very efficient, making for a delicious and fun night out with friends. Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong playing in the background was the cherry on top of a great evening.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Beach Bistro: A Culinary Gem on Florida's Gulf Coast

For 28 years, Sean Murphy has owned one of the best restaurants in Florida. Beach Bistro, tucked into an old hotel on the sandy beach of Anna Maria Island, it has won just about every award available and maintains one of the highest Zagat ratings in Florida. Every time I'm in Longboat Key, making a culinary pilgrimage to Beach Bistro is always one of the highlights of my trip. Sean’s ambition has been the same throughout the Bistro’s history — to provide his guests with one of the best dining experiences that they've ever had, and he's definitely succeeding, reflected in all of the glowing accolades that Beach Bistro consistently receives.

The delightful and charismatic Sean Murphy

The restaurant is currently an eight-time recipient of Florida Trend Magazine’s Golden Spoon Award and has been enthroned in the Golden Spoon “Hall of Fame.” Its wine list regularly receives the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence for offering “one of the best wine lists in the world” and constantly receives the highest Zagat rating for food and service in the state of Florida. It is included in Zagat’s Top Restaurants in America and is lauded by the guide for “the best food on the Gulf Coast…as good as any in New York or Paris.”

The perfect start to the evening, a chilled Hendricks Martini 
straight up with a slice of cucumber

The perfect way begin any special evening at Beach Bistro must include a cocktail before dinner, and for me it's a Hendricks Gin Martini, straight up with a hint of vermouth and garnished with a slice of cucumber. It also provides a pleasurable interlude to peruse the menu and consider all the delicious choices.

Beach Bistro's menu cleverly offers smaller and full portions 
accommodating different appetites

Attention to detail - a fresh dewy rose petal graces every napkin

A lovely touch: a sprig of aromatic rosemary and fresh lemon 
graces even a simple glass of water

A delicious amuse-bouche arrives at the table featuring a bowl of Beach Bistro's enormously popular “One Helluva Soup” made with seasoned Parrish plum tomatoes, sweet cream and Maytag blue cheese. The flavour is out of this world. Served with the soup is a grilled tomato and black olive tapenade nestled on a warm slice of tasted brioche bread. Sean could serve this an entrée and I'm sure it would be a runaway hit.

An amuse-bouche of grilled tomato and olive tapenade bruschetta and a small bowl 
of Beach Bistro's “One Helluva Soup” made with seasoned Parrish plum tomatoes, 
sweet cream and Maytag blue cheese — divine!

We both order the Bistro Caesar Salad which is made with both romaine and baby red romaine lettuce with optional garnishes of Maytag blue cheese, crumbled bacon or white anchovies. We choose the latter, and the salad arrives with a decorative and edible garnish, a golden hued nasturtium, very close to the colour of the sun setting on the white sands of Holmes Beach. Having been seated at the coveted corner table with windows on both sides, the view is as intoxicating as the food.

Beach Bistro's Caesar Salad made with romaine and baby red romaine 
with an extra order of little anchovy fishies

The menu reveals Murphy’s relaxed and humorous take on sophisticated food. For instance, in describing his "Famous Bistro Bouillabaisse" he wants us to know that first you hire a bunch of pros to build a killer broth, then add poached-to-order Maine lobster tails, jumbo shrimp, premium local market fish, shellfish, calamari and fresh herbs, then serve with clever asides of herbed, garlic toast and aiöli. Having ordered the dish almost every time I go to Beach Bistro, I know it takes 3 days to prepare the broth alone, having quizzed the staff repeatedly about how they make it so flavourful. "The recipe took two years of tweaking to reach perfection", says Murphy, and includes Pernod, saffron and fresh herbs, and the result is sublime. The dish comes is 2 sizes: Generous at $52 and Bountiful at $59, and 'generous' is quite bountiful already.

Sean's famous Bistro Bouillabaisse

The clever asides for my Bouillabaisse of herbed garlic toast and aiöli

Even the bowl with my empty shells looked inviting

Beach Bistro has a number of famous dishes, but one of the most popular must be the Colorado Rack of Lamb herb-rubbed, pan-seared and oven-roasted, finished with a port, rosemary demi-glace. The lamb is served with a stand of grilled asparagus spears complete with Béarnaise sauce. As with many of Beach Bistro's entrées, the lamb is offered as light rack of three generous chops for $52 or a full rack of five hops for $81. The light rack is the perfect size, and with two delectable side dishes of Foraged Mushrooms kissed with butter and picked thyme, and Duck Fat Roasted Fingerling Potatoes, roasted crisp with garlic, fresh thyme and rosemary, the combination of flavours was exceptional.

Rack of Colorado Lamb, herb-rubbed, pan-seared and oven-roasted, finished 
with a port, rosemary demi-glace and served with Grilled Asparagus Spears with Béarnaise

Foraged Mushrooms kissed with butter and picked thyme

Duck Fat Roasted Fingerling Potatoes, roasted crisp with garlic, 
fresh thyme and rosemary

The dessert menu selections at Beach Bistro are charmingly called 'Happy Endings', and feature a constantly changing kaleidoscope of sweet desserts. This evening the menu highlighted Praline Alexandra with Bistro-made praline, French vanilla ice cream and Frangelico, Chocolate Truffle Terrine made with Callebaut bittersweet chocolate, and of course Florida Key Lime Pie. Not to be outdone by special requests, we asked for Affogato, which literally translates as "drowned", is an Italian coffee-based dessert which usually takes the form of a scoop or two of vanilla ice cream topped with a shot of hot espresso. It was not on the menu but we described what we wanted and the kitchen performed. Simple and delicious, it was the perfect end to a wonderful evening.

Affogato: three scoops of vanilla ice cream topped with a shot of hot espresso

A delicious happy ending!