Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Tips for Handling, Storing, and Cooking with Fresh Strawberries


            Summer is here and strawberry season is one of the most celebrated times of the year for lovers of this luscious red fruit. I always buy an abundant amount of all fruit when it is in season, and strawberries are no exception.

            Although strawberries seem to be available throughout the entire year, thanks to our friends in the south; they are not as good as the ones we get fresh right here from our local farmers. Imported strawberries from warmer climates have usually been cultivated in a way, which produces a larger and firmer berry more durable for transport. This is great for having strawberries available year-round, however these cultivation methods are also the culprit for producing a berry that usually is not as sweet or flavourful as it’s locally available counter-part. Thus we tend to rely on sweeteners and flavour enhancers, such as sugar or chocolate, when serving them. A small amount of balsamic vinegar is also, surprisingly; a great way to bring out the flavour of fresh strawberries.

            Strawberries are very perishable and should be handled and stored with care. First of all, never buy a basket of strawberries that contains any spoiled ones. Although it may only be one berry, microscopic mold spores have already been transferred to adjacent berries in the basket. This will lead to the whole basket of fruit deteriorating faster. Since washing and handling of the berries will also increase the rapidness of spoilage, only wash the amount needed and leave the others untouched.

            The washing of strawberries should only be done with the whole berry intact. If the green top is removed, you will find that the center is somewhat hollow. This cavity will collect water and dramatically reduce (water down) the amount of flavour. Unwashed leftover berries should be stored in the refrigerator in a covered container to keep their “musty” odor from dispersing throughout. A drain tray in this container would be ideal, as it would aid in air circulation within, by keeping any moisture trapped at the bottom and away from the berries.

            Freezing is another option for preservation, however as with most fragile fruit you lose quality. Strawberries are high in vitamin C and the most optimal way of maintaining their nutritional value is to leave them whole. Cut strawberries have more surface area, and thus loose nutrients faster. To prepare for freezing, wash the berries intact, pat them dry, remove the green tops, and transfer them to a freezer bag and use them within the next six months for best results.

There are many dishes that you can prepare using strawberries. The most traditional are
desserts such as strawberry shortcake and chocolate dipped strawberries. However, they also work great as tid-bits on cheese platter, or make them into a salsa to spoon over grilled chicken or fish. Many people have never made a salsa out of fruit, but it is very simple and the contrasting flavours are very complimentary to the grilled fish or meat it is being served upon. To accomplish making a great strawberry salsa, just add an assortment of items to small-diced strawberries, such as red onion, yellow bell pepper, jalapeno, cilantro, lime juice, and season with a little salt & pepper. You will be amazed at the results – and since it is strawberry season, the time to experiment is now.
Until next time... Happy Cooking!

Friday, June 16, 2017

Upgrade Dad’s BBQ to Lump Charcoal


            Although men have been assigned the stereotype of working the backyard grill, it is a joy that is shared by all home culinary enthusiasts. It’s a summertime passion. The aroma of lump charcoal being lit starts my mouth watering as my mind conjures up recollections of flame-licked meats, and fire caramelized vegetables. Lump charcoal is the new black when it comes to barbecuing, and with a few basic tips and some research, you can overcome any intimidation you may have towards this natural fuel.

            Before I get into the benefits of lump charcoal, I must stress that the quality of equipment is important. I hear of so many people purchasing equipment just because the price is right. Your outdoor cooking appliance is a significant purchase and should not be looked upon differently than the purchase of a new oven/stove for your kitchen. If anything, quality in an outdoor cooker should be of higher importance that your indoor oven/stove because it will be subjected to the elements; even with a cover over it the environment is more humid than anything you use indoors.

            A barbeque should not be considered a disposable fixture. You should not have to replace it every few years. You would never dream of doing that with your indoor oven/stove, so why do you expect to do that with your barbecue? Do your research. How long has the company been operating for? How long is the warranty? Is the warranty administered through the retailer or do you have to deal with the manufacturer yourself? How easy is it to get replacement parts and accessories? Taking the time to investigate before you purchase will pay off in the long run.

            Barbecued flavor from natural wood is the best in my opinion and natural lump charcoal is arguably the way to go. Sure there are other products that will give you smoke flavor like pellets or bisquettes in different smokers. However, these are made from wood chips and/or sawdust compressed together, and because of that they are more susceptible to moisture absorption, and also not usually used in direct high heat searing. The old standby square formed briquettes, compressed with binding ingredients, are also no comparison to natural lump charcoal. Lump charcoal is basically just chunks of wood that have been heated with little oxygen. This process carbonizes the wood and transforms it into this incredible long-lasting fuel that naturally adds amazing flavor to anything grilled with it. I have read that archeological digs have proven that we as humans have been making charcoal for the purpose of cooking for thousands of years. This would then be the oldest known form of cooking to mankind. It’s simple: we take from nature through sustainable resources, cook our food, and give back to nature by contributing the compostable ash to our gardens.

            The bag you purchase must say “lump charcoal” to know that you’re getting the real deal. There are many brands in the market place to choose from. Charcoal made from only hardwood will be the premium choice. Hardwood lump charcoal lasts longer, is easier to light, makes food taste better in my opinion, and is more receptive to oxygen flow.

            To have fire, in the simplest form, is to have fuel, ignition and oxygen. Controlling the flow of oxygen through air vents on a charcoal grill to increase/decrease temperature will replace the working of gas knobs on a gas/propane grill. A fire can’t burn, or let alone increase in temperature, without oxygen. Increase the oxygen and you will increase the amount of fire, and thus increase the temperature of the cook. The opposite will happen with the decrease of oxygen. It’s that simple, and your food has never tasted better.

            To make Dad the true king of the barbecue this Father’s Day get him cooking on the most natural fuel and the taste of his famous barbecued food will increase dramatically. There is a ton of information on the internet and in books on charcoal cooking that will help make the transition as easy as possible. Until next time... Happy Cooking, and Happy Father's Day!

Friday, June 9, 2017

Garlic and Lemon Juice in Greek Cooking


            Of my cooking classes, Greek are the most popular by far and this stems from my own passion for the flavours of Greece. Almost everyone I talk to loves Greek food and has frequented their local Greek Restaurants many times. People are always quick to mention their favourite ones and the best dishes that are served there.

            I joke with people all the time that to create Greek food one basically adds olive oil, garlic, lemon juice, and oregano to anything and it’s Greek. Although these may be common denominators in many Greek recipes, there’s a bit more to it than that to make good Greek food.


            The most important thing to remember is ingredients from the source will always taste better in the final dish. Two ingredients that always come to mind when discussing this are garlic and lemon juice. Please use fresh.

            Garlic should never come from a jar. I see people in stores buying these large jars of peeled, chopped garlic in brine and I question it. The response is usually “it’s cheap and convenient”. Sounds like ‘fast food’ to me. Just because something is cheap and convenient, doesn’t mean we should use it. Take any fresh cut vegetable (or fruit for that matter) and soak it in a jar full of brine – where does the flavour go? It leaches into the brine. So people who take a slotted spoon and add some of this garlic to a dish and say “I’m cooking with Garlic” – I respond and say “No, you’re cooking with a residual, that was once garlic, and now most of the natural flavour has gone into the brine – which you’re going to dump down the drain in a year once you have gotten through that humungous jar”. Let alone all the preservatives involved.

            Many people also willingly pass through the produce section, walking by the lemons, on their way to the juice aisle to grab a bottle of lemon juice… again for the same reason “cheap and convenient”. If you go to a lemon orchard in Florida or Italy, there are not bottles hanging from the trees. A reconstituted juice from concentrate will not give you the same flavour as what’s offered from a fresh lemon. Plus you have the added bonus of reaping the aromatic and colourful zest from the outer peel to utilize as an additional ingredient or beautiful garnish.

            We have to remember that the term “cheap and convenient” is not a synonym for “flavour” and if you want your Greek food, or any food, to taste better you need to go to the source of the ingredient you are adding for optimal results. Fresh is always best.
            Until next time... Happy Cooking!
Greek Salad

2 long English cucumbers, diced large
6-8 Roma tomatoes, diced large
1 large yellow pepper, diced large
1 large orange pepper, diced large
1 medium to large red onion, diced large
1 cup Kalamata olives
Crumbled Feta Cheese 

Dressing

1 cup olive oil
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
3 tbsp red wine vinegar
2 tbsp dried oregano leaves
2 garlic cloves, crushed
2 tbsp sugar
salt and coarsely ground pepper to season


  1. In a large bowl, toss the vegetables and olives together.
  2. In a separate bowl, mix the dressing ingredients well and pour over the salad. Toss to coat.
  3. Garnish with crumbled feta cheese and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Praise for Braising!


            Have recent increases in the price of meat leave you with the thought of becoming a vegetarian? With no disrespect to my vegetable eating friends, there is a great technique to bring extreme flavour and tenderness to cheaper cuts of meat. It’s called “braising”.

            Braising is typically the process of first searing meat and then cooking it in a small amount of liquid at low temperatures for a long period of time. This low & slow method, along with the added moisture, is the ideal environment for breaking down connective tissue and thus making the meat more tender. The residual liquid is almost always transformed into a serving sauce with the prepared meat. Braising is used for both large cuts of meats and also for smaller individual cuts, with the main difference being the length of cooking time. Stews are another great example of braising.

            Before the first step of searing, seasoning should be done. By seasoning before searing, the crust that is being created becomes more flavourful as the seasoning becomes part of the crust. This seasoning does not have to be complex. It’s as simple as a dusting of salt and pepper, or as intricate as you want it to be. This flavourful browning of the meat will bring out incredible tastes in your finished dish.

            The searing should be done at a high temperature in order to create brownness on the meat. If the temperature is too low, or if a pan is too crowded, then the initial escaping moisture from the meat will not evaporate, and thus the meat will just boil in its own juices instead of browning.

            The cooking liquid chosen should be selected to compliment the meat/dish. The amount of liquid will be different for every application. Stews are usually submersed in liquid for the cooking time, while pot roasts, for example, usually have just enough liquid to cover the meat by one third to two thirds. Some individual cuts of meat, like pork chops, can be cooked with a lid with no added liquid. Just the trapped moisture in the meat itself may be enough for braising.

            At the end of the cooking time, the residual cooking liquids can be easily transformed into accompanying sauces by reducing, thickening, or a combination of both. Before deciding how to finish your sauce, it will start with tasting. How are the flavours? How intense is it? If you decide that the flavours and intensity are sufficient, then a simple thickening will do: enter in a dissolved
cornstarch slurry and bring to a full boil. If you find that the flavours and intensity are not sufficient, then boil the liquid as is, until it reduces through evaporation of water content. Taste along the way and decide when the sauce is ideal. This may also involve adjusting and balancing the flavours along the way. Once the desired taste is achieved, examine the sauce to see if thickening is even required, as it may have thickened enough on its own during this reduction time.

            Learning many cooking techniques are great to assist you in the kitchen by increasing your skillset, but nothing can replace the hands-on experience of practice. Cook, be happy, know that you will make mistakes along the way, and enjoy life. Life is too short to get stressed out by a serving of food that is not perfect. Until next time... Happy Cooking!

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

“Oven Dried” Tomatoes instead of “Sun Dried”


            If you like tomatoes, chances are you also love the taste of robust sun-dried tomatoes. They can be purchased either packed in oil, vacuum packed, or dehydrated; and when buying them from the store, I like the ones packed in oil the best. The ones made from scratch however, are even tastier.

            Whatever the process, dried tomatoes are more concentrated in flavor because most of the water content has been removed during the drying process. Although this recipe is called Oven “Dried” Tomatoes, they are not really dried; they are still moist but have just shrunk to approximately one-third to one-quarter of their original size and have really intense flavour. We love using these in a
number of recipes such as pasta, pizza, sandwiches, or even just eating them on their own. The downside of this recipe is the length of time they need to be in the oven. Cooking them at a low temperature for a long period of time is the best way to extract moisture, intensify flavours, without burning them in the process. Close attention is needed in the latter part of the cooking process to ensure that they do not get overcooked, dried out, and/or burnt. The cooking time is an approximation and will depend on a number of factors: the size of the tomatoes, the ripeness of the tomatoes, the correct calibration of your oven, etc. Do not let this scare you however, just pay attention, that’s all.

            This is a great recipe to make on a day when you are going to be home anyway and want the warm Mediterranean aromas filling your house. Since they are not completely dried however, they do not last indefinitely. Once cooled, store them in an airtight container and keep refrigerated for up to 7 days. Enjoy!
            I have a Big Green Egg outdoor barbecue/smoker and making this recipe with charcoal and your choice of wood is even more incredible than the oven process!


Oven Dried Tomatoes
10 fresh Roma tomatoes
2 tbsp. olive oil
2 tbsp. balsamic vinegar
1 tbsp. dried basil leaves (not ground basil)
1 tbsp. dried oregano leaves (not ground oregano)
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp fresh cracked pepper

1. Preheat oven to 200 degrees Fahrenheit.
2. Remove and discard any green tops of the tomatoes, slice in half from top to bottom (lengthwise), and place them in a mixing bowl.
3. Add the olive oil, balsamic, basil, oregano, salt & pepper, and toss to coat. Gently work a small amount of pulp out of the tomato halves while working the flavourings into the tomato cavities.
4. Arrange the tomatoes cut side up on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
5. Spoon the remaining liquid from the bowl over the tomatoes and lightly season each one again with salt & pepper.
6. Bake for approximately 5 to 6 hours, until the tomatoes have reduced by approximately two-thirds or three-quarters in size but are still moist. Remove from the oven and let cool to room temperature.
7. Use in a number of recipes such as pastas, pizzas, bruschetta, grains, etc... anywhere you want incredible tomato flavour.

Makes 20 halves
This recipe is included in Chef Dez's book: "The Best In Your Kitchen"
Until next time... Happy Cooking!

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Versatility That Sticks to the Roof of Your Mouth


            As a child, I remember when I first discovered the taste of a peanut butter and banana sandwich and wondered how many others knew about this phenomenon. The contrasting flavours of salty nuttiness and the sweetness opened up a whole new world for me. I then started searching for other ways to indulge my newly established passion for peanut butter. Spreading a spoonful of it on each bite of an apple was my favorite.
            My fascination of peanut butter has matured since then, and I have discovered many ways to use this household pantry staple. The most important thing to keep in mind however, is the growing number of peanut allergies in people. Always inquire with dinner guests to discover any allergies you may not be aware of before planning a menu.
            Peanut butter has been in existence for hundreds of years and is a regular food item in over 70% of households. Peanut butter, in moderation, is a good part of a balanced diet and a source of protein. Although it contains a large amount of fat, approximately 80% of the fat content is unsaturated. Unsaturated fats have been proven to help reduce levels of LDL-cholesterol (the bad cholesterol) without lowering HDL-cholesterol (the good one). If the healthy aspect is your focus however, you are much better off with natural peanut butters where the ingredients are just peanuts. Peanut butters that are not natural may contain unhealthy artificially produced trans-fats, which have been linked to increases in LDL-cholesterol.
            We only buy natural peanut butter in our family, but because of the lack of preservatives it needs to be kept in the refrigerator once opened. Many people complain about the natural separation of the oil upon opening a fresh jar and about the hard consistency when using it cold from the refrigerator, but we have a couple of ways to get around this.
            When we buy a new jar we store it upside down in our pantry before opening. The separated peanut oil is lighter and will always rise to the top, and since the jar is upside down the oil is now at the bottom of the jar once turned right side up. This allows you to more easily incorporate the oil back in without it spilling over the top - a simple butter knife works great. We also throw in a few pinches of salt for flavour. Now that the peanut butter is blended back together it is ready to go to the refrigerator and it will then stay homogenized together. Some people will remove all of the contents from the jar and whir it in a food processor to achieve this, but to me that seems like a lot of extra equipment to clean.
            When it comes to using the hard cold peanut butter on bread or toast, we simply heat the small portion we are going to use. We have a toaster oven and once the bread has been toasted, we place a serving of cold peanut butter on each piece and put it back in the warmed oven for approximately 30 seconds (with the toaster oven off), and then it will spread very easily. Alternatively, if you don’t own a toaster oven, just microwave a portion for a few seconds. The ‘old school’ way would be to plan ahead and leave some out at room temperature beforehand.
            The first alternate use for peanut butter that comes to mind is for making sauces and/or dressings. Use it as a base in a spicy peanut dressing for your favorite salad, or in a peanut sauce for your next stir-fry. There are many recipes available to successfully accomplish these ideas. For a fantastic finishing touch make sure that the garnish for these dishes include a handful of roasted peanuts. For added dimension of flavour and richness in chili, soups and stews, a tablespoon or two of peanut butter is fantastic, but again be sure about any allergy possibilities as most people won't suspect it in these meals.
            One substitution that always keeps me reaching for the peanut butter, is to replace tahini. I love Greek hummus (ground chic pea dip), and it usually requires a sesame paste called tahini. Since I hardly ever have tahini on hand, peanut butter is a wonderful alternative. It is the same consistency as tahini, and the flavour depth that the peanut butter adds to the recipe is incredible.
            In addition to these uses there are many desserts that feature the wonderful taste of peanut butter. I cannot stress enough to take advantage of the free resources like the library and the internet for an abundant number of recipes.
            Experimenting in the kitchen is the pathway to creating recipes that you can call your own and take pride in. Have fun trying these suggestions, but if all else fails there is still one use that you can rely on: the next time you have a case of the hiccups, swallowing a tablespoon of peanut butter will usually eliminate them.
            Until next time... Happy Cooking!

Friday, May 12, 2017

3 Wicked Sauces for Your Steak


            One of my favorite meats on the barbecue is a good beef steak. I used to be somewhat of a purest and insist on only salt & pepper gracing this grilled wonder, but I have lightened up over the years. Although I have never been (and never will be) a fan of coating a beef steak with traditional type barbecue sauce, my wife loves sauce with almost everything. So to please her palate, and mine as well, I usually turn to one of these three incredible sauces. I hope you like them. Until next time... Happy Cooking!

Peppercorn Sauce
2/3 cup full bodied red wine
2 tbsp concord grape jelly
1/2 cup whipping cream
1/2 cup beef stock
2 tbsp canned green Madagascar peppercorns, drained
1 tbsp butter

In a large pan over medium-high heat add the wine and grape jelly. Boil until the wine has reduced in volume by half, and the jelly has melted into the wine.
Add the cream and beef stock and continue to boil until the sauce has become thickened and syrupy, stirring frequently.
Pull the pan off the heat. Stir in the strained peppercorns and butter and serve immediately.


Jus (brothy sauce like you would get with prime rib)

1 cup full bodied red wine
3 garlic cloves, peeled and cut in half
1 sprig fresh rosemary
1 cup beef broth
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp sugar

Combine the red wine, garlic cloves, and rosemary in a small pot. Boil over medium/high to high heat until the wine has reduced in volume by half. Add the beef stock, salt and sugar. Stir to combine, cover and set aside off the heat until your meat is cooked.
While the meat is resting, warm the Jus in the pot until hot, strain the garlic and rosemary out and portion into small dipping cups for serving.

Garlic Compound Butter
1 cup butter, room temperature
4 large garlic cloves, minced
1/4 cup finely chopped parsley
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese

Mix the butter, garlic, parsley and parmesan thoroughly.
Shape in wax paper into a 1-inch cylindrical shape. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap.
Store in the refrigerator (or freezer) until needed.
To serve as a complimentary sauce: unwrap and slice thick circles of the butter to let melt on the hot grilled steaks.