Every day my inbox lights up with invites to product launches, wine tastings, restaurant openings and gourmet food events. (I know: #foodeditorproblems.) I have to turn down the majority of them otherwise I'd never get any work done and I'd weigh 300 pounds. But when I was recently asked to attend a lunch hosted by the Dairy Farmers of Canada, I only got halfway through the subject line of "Canadian Cheese Grand Prix..." before replying "SOLD!"
The event in question was a special media tasting of all the winners of the recent 2013 Canadian Cheese Grand Prix, which selected the very best Canadian cheeses from a whopping 225 entries.
Sampling the crème de la crème at a table of fellow food scribes, it was a very civilized way to spend the lunch hour. From the 17 category winners, here are my three favourites.
1. Grizzly Gouda, Sylvan Star Cheese Ltd.
Winner of both the Gouda and Farmhouse Cheese categories, this 1-year-old wheel from Red Deer, Alberta reminds me of Parmigiano-Reggiano. (See #2 in the above photo.) It's very firm with a deep nutty, caramel flavour and loaded with so much umami it sends your tongue into overdrive.
2. 5-Year Age Cheddar, The Black River Cheese Company Ltd.
This orange cheddar from Prince Edward County, Ontario took the Aged Cheddar (more than 3 years) category. It's sharp and crumbly, yet super creamy on the palate. This bad boy would make a seriously delicious grilled cheese sandwich or melt into a magnificent mac and cheese.
3. Ricotta, Quality Cheese Inc.
This creamy ricotta made headlines when it took the Grand Champion category, an honour never bestowed upon a fresh cheese. Made in Vaughan, Ontario, it shows off the purity and freshness of the milk. While you can eat it straight from the tub by the spoonful, it's terrific smeared onto sourdough toasts and topped with truffle oil, honey and cracked pepper.
Watch a video of Lynda Reeves and I making our own versions of mac and cheese.
1. Eric Vellend
One of the perks of working at House & Home is its close proximity to Toronto's Soma Chocolatemaker, which is, without exaggeration, one of the best chocolate shops on the planet. David Castellan, who co-owns Soma with his wife, Cynthia Leung, is a brilliant pastry chef and one of the only chocolatiers in the country who does bean-to-bar chocolate. (It's hauntingly good stuff.)
Always tinkering away on new ideas, the soft-spoken Castellan recently released a heavenly nut butter called Majoun.
"It's based on a spread from an old chocolate store in Torino called Pfatisch," he wrote in a recent email. "It's basically Nutella made with almonds and without cocoa powder so it's a blonde colour. I recreated the formula, and to reference Nutella, I added roasted organic Madagascar cocoa nibs instead of the usual Dutched cocoa powder."
Because Castellan stays away from hydrogenated fats, the spread is a little stiff. But once it hits warm toast it turns soft, shiny and silky. It's deeply flavoured with perfectly roasted hazelnuts and almonds, and the cocoa nibs give it a bitter, chocolatey crunch. It's $14 for a jar, but well worth it. Breakfast will never be the same again.
See our Decadent Chocolate Recipes for more sweet ideas.
1. Eric Vellend
I was recently struck down with a nasty case of food poisoning. (That's what I get for eating cheap sushi.) My stomach was left in a fragile state. For any kind of dyspeptic ailment, I dust off my congee recipe.
Simple, economical and highly comforting, congee is a rice-based porridge from China. And while it sounds like something served in a Dickensian orphanage, it's surprisingly delicious and just the prescription for sensitive tummies.
4 cups chicken stock
5 cups water
1 cup jasmine rice
5 slices ginger
Salt to taste
Sliced green onion for garnish (optional)
Step 1: In a large pot, combine stock, water, rice and ginger. Bring to boil over high heat. When it starts to boil, cover partially and reduce heat to maintain simmer.
Step 2: Cook, stirring occasionally at the beginning and more frequently near the end, until it becomes a runny porridge, about 1 hour. Discard ginger. Season with salt.
Step 3: Serve hot sprinkled with green onion.
Makes 4 servings
See more Asian-Inspired Dishes.
I bought my first piece of cast-iron cookware in my early 20s, a green Le Creuset five-quart Dutch oven. I don't remember the impetus for the purchase other than it was on sale. Today, it remains an essential part of my kitchen arsenal: I use it to braise meats, caramelize onions, simmer sauces, and it moonlights as a deep fryer on weekends. And other than a few scratches, it belies two decades in heavy rotation.
Cast-iron cookware is storming back into fashion and I picked it as one of our top 10 food trends in our January 2013 issue (pick up your copy on Eastern newsstands December 10th and Western December 17th).
Restaurants are serving everything from mussels to mac and cheese in comely cast-iron vessels, and the cast-iron skillet has become so essential for the perfect sear, butcher shops are now carrying them.
What is it about cast iron that inspires such devotion?
The first reason is its peerless durability. With proper care, cast-iron cookware will last a lifetime: several, in fact. I inherited a bright red pot from my grandmother, and many people own skillets that have been passed down for generations. Even rusty old pans can be restored back to their former glory. For step-by-step instructions, check out this blog post from Black Iron Dude.
We also love cast iron for its rugged good looks. There is something more inviting about food cooked and served in cast iron. It's unpretentious, rustic and comforting. Cornbread, for example, looks way more delicious served in a cast-iron skillet than it does in a regular baking dish. (It also gets an addictively crisp crust unattainable in any other pan.)
Beyond its dependability and all-around handsomeness, cast iron is prized for its incredible heat retention. Chili served in miniature cast-iron cocottes will stay hotter longer. Meats braised in cast-iron pots can be cooked at a lower temperature. Used as a makeshift deep fryer, a cast-iron pot will maintain the oil temperature much better than stainless steel.
In general, cast-iron helps food brown better, yielding golden gratins, panades, cobblers and crisps.
If you don't own any cast-iron cookware, I recommend starting with a basic 10-inch skillet for tasks like searing scallops, pan-frying pork chops and, of course, baking cornbread. You can get a decent one for under $40 and they come pre-seasoned and ready to rock.
A five-quart enameled Dutch oven, like my Le Creuset, is also indispensible. They cost a fortune, but it's a small price to pay for a lifetime of service.
Watch Eric Vellend in action on Online TV.
1-4. Eric Vellend
From my first job as a baker to my final days as a catering chef, I made hundreds of thousands of cookies over my professional cooking career. Leading up to the holiday season, the pace was punishing. If I ever develop carpal tunnel syndrome, I will blame the million and one gingerbread men I've rolled, cut and decorated. With nearly two decades of yuletide baking under my belt, here are some tips on becoming a better baker.
Once you've mapped out your cookie blitz, sit down, make a shopping list and check it twice. Stock up on the basics like flour, sugar and butter at the supermarket then head to a bulk store for the rest. Not only are the ingredients generally fresher and cheaper in bulk, you can bring your measuring cups to buy exactly what you need. Why waste $7 on a jar of cardamom when you only need half a teaspoon? It also pays to splurge on the best ingredients you can afford. Using high quality European chocolate, real vanilla extract and freshly grated nutmeg make the difference between a good cookie and a great one.
In terms of equipment, a stand mixer is essential for any serious baker. (I haven't used a hand mixer since Trudeau was Prime Minister.) A good stand mixer costs around $300, but they always seem to be on sale somewhere, and they'll last for decades. I'm also a big fan of heavy-duty aluminum sheet pans, which are less prone to buckling than typically thin cookie trays. Aluminum also doesn't retain heat very well, so cookies are less likely to burn. These pans can be found at restaurant supply shops. Finally, I like to use a lot of citrus zest in my cookies (including the lemon squares pictured above) and a rasp grater (a.k.a. Microplane) is the only tool that removes all the good stuff and none of the bitter white pith. It's also handy for grating nutmeg.
When you're ready to start baking, always read the recipe through before you start. Then measure everything out into bowls and ramekins. Chefs call this mise en place, which is French for "everything in its place." It avoids unpleasant scenarios like discovering that you're out of eggs mid mix.
Before you start portioning cookies on trays, get to know your oven. First, check the temperature with a gauge to make sure it's in synch with the dial. (The oven I grew up on was 50°F off.) Some ovens have hot spots in corners, which necessitate rotating the trays halfway through for even baking. Avoid opening the door as much as possible, because once the heat rushes out, the bottom element goes on to compensate, increasing the likelihood of scorched cookie bottoms. So when you go in and out of the oven, move like Bruce Lee.
My final tip is to store cookies in airtight containers that are only used for this purpose. Put cookies into a plastic tub that recently held French onion soup, and within a day your cookies will taste like French onion soup.
Get Eric Vellend's Beef Wellington instructions.
1. Eric Vellend
I admire top chefs who would rather spend time behind the stoves than in front of a camera. April Bloomfield is one of those rare birds, a chefs' chef, who can usually be found toiling at one of her three hugely popular Manhattan restaurants: The Spotted Pig, The Breslin and The John Dory Oyster Bar.
And now she's come out with her first book, A Girl and Her Pig: Recipes and Stories by April Bloomfield with JJ Goode (2012 Ecco), $33.
While Bloomfield's celebrity is mostly contained within the five boroughs, A Girl and Her Pig is sure to make her more of a household name. I recently took it home one weekend and found myself drawn to her bold, British approach to seasonal cooking. I bookmarked half the recipes with yellow notes and read her charming stories into the wee hours of the night. It's an engaging tome, less of a restaurant compendium and more of a guide to better Sunday suppers.
Here are a few of Bloomfield's simple, delicious recipes to grace my table this fall:
This is an autumnal seven-vegetable soup, which gets the gentlest undercurrent of heat from dried chili flakes. A squeeze of lemon sharpens the flavours, taking the dish from "Mmm..." to "Wow."
Big flakes of moist hot-smoked trout, earthy roast beets, peppery arugula and tangy blobs of crème fraîche come together for a sensational salad.
Wedges of Savoy cabbage, carrots, shallots, whole garlic cloves and thick slices of bacon are braised in rich chicken stock. This dish somehow manages to be both hearty and light.
Every recipe I tried is a keeper. If you want to up your game without spending all day in the kitchen, this book is a good investment.
For more great ideas, see our Fresh Fall Recipes guide.