Sunday, July 16, 2017

Rest in Peace Caryn


            In my career as a certified Red Seal Chef, I am not only a Food Columnist, but also a published Author, Culinary Instructor, and get hired as a Host/MC for various events. However, one of my greatest accomplishments is also being a Culinary Travel Host, and I owe the honour of having that title to a very special lady: Caryn Zimmerman.

            We first met years ago after one of my live cooking shows. She was a huge supporter of me, and became a friend of mine, ever since. With her vivacious personality and expertise in the travel industry, along with my passion for food and people, we eventually became a great business team as we launched Chef Dez Culinary Tours. Many people have combined food and travel together, but no one did it quite like us. We had a knack for it, and our travel guests agree.

            Our first Chef Dez Culinary Tour was in 2014 to Savannah GA. We wanted our tour guests to experience southern hospitality at its finest all while being surrounded by incredible history from one of the oldest cities in the USA. Twenty-four guests traveled with us for 8 days, and I am now friends with many of these guests still to this day. This inaugural tour really opened my eyes to what Caryn can accomplish when it comes to travel and making sure our guests are looked after.

            In 2015 the Chef Dez Culinary Tour took us and our guests through the state of Texas. We visited many cities, stayed at incredible properties, travelled to wineries, ate true barbecue, and much more. All of us left pieces of our hearts in Texas because of this amazing tour. Again Caryn shined. My favorite time with her was at the Texas State Fair: the world’s largest state fair.

            Our last Chef Dez Culinary Tour was to the Canadian province of PEI in the fall of 2016. Here, with our tour guests, we got to experience not only the beautiful autumn colours of PEI, but also to experience east coast living at its finest. The pinnacle part of this trip was staying at the property of Chef Michael Smith, The Inn at Bay Fortune, and having a private cooking event with Chef Michael. Although this trip was culinarily focused around oysters and lobster, Caryn didn’t let her shellfish allergy stand in the way. Her motto was always “This is not about me. This is about our guests.”

            Unfortunately, Caryn passed away on June 27, 2017 after a short, but fierce battle with cancer and it is in her honour that I dedicate this blog entry. Anyone that knew Caryn, knows how full of life she always was. Caryn was the type of person that made any party or gathering an event that no one would soon forget. From her flip-flops, to her sunglasses, wild accessories, and her zest for life, everyone knew when Caryn was there.

            Thank you Caryn for not only being a friend and colleague, but also as a mentor. You have taught me so much over the years, and was always there for me. I miss you terribly and would give anything to hear your laugh and see your smile again. If I knew I was going to lose you so soon, I would have tried to spend even more time with you.

            Because of this loss, the Chef Dez Culinary Tours are postponed indefinitely. At this point I can’t even imagine doing them again without her. The community of Abbotsford BC, where she resided, and everyone that she came across in her travels, would agree that we have lost a very special person. Rest in peace Caryn…

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Healthy Chocolate Mousse?

            In preparation for a dinner party this Friday, I wanted to get familiar with transforming avocados into chocolate mousse. I have heard of this being done before, but until now I have never tried making it. One of the vegetarian dinner guests for this Friday also doesn't eat dairy or eggs so I had to come up with a plan for her dessert... and I think I nailed it.
            Make sure you use really soft ripe avocados for this recipe to ensure that they process into a smooth homogenized mixture easily. A food processor will give you the best results for this recipe, but in a pinch a blender could be used. I made sure to weigh the flesh (weight is without skins or pits) for a precise recipe measurement, but you can use 2 small avocados if you don't have a kitchen scale. If too much flesh is used (in ratio to the other ingredients) then it will tend to taste too strong of avocado.
            I used a double boiler for melting the chocolate chips (a stainless steel bowl over simmering water - without the water touching the bowl), but if you watch it carefully you can melt them in a microwave (in a microwave safe container).
            A traditional "mousse" is made with whipped cream and beaten egg whites, so this isn't really a mousse, but more of an avocado chocolate pudding, I guess. But does it mean that by using avocados that this is now a "healthy" dessert? Well, no... but, healthier! You see, it still has chocolate and sugar in the recipe. It is also important to point out that avocados have a lot of fat content, but they are healthy fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated); which, in moderation, are beneficial to a healthy lifestyle and can lower bad cholesterol levels.
            Two of my children (ages 8 and 11) and my wife, were my guinea pigs for this recipe, and they all immensely enjoyed this dessert! It has an almost "strawberry & chocolate" flavour to it; a slight "green" flavour, I guess. The prep is extremely easy and thus can be made in a hurry... but just remember to allow time for chilling. Until next time... Happy Cooking!

Avocado Chocolate Mousse - makes approximately 1.75 cups

240g ripe avocado flesh (approximately 2 small avocados)
1/2 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
6 tablespoons coconut milk
3 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon salt

1. Peel and pit the avocados and place the flesh in a food processor.
2. Melt the chocolate chips and add to the food processor.
3. Add the coconut milk, sugar, vanilla, and salt to the food processor and puree until completely smooth.
4. Portion into dessert dishes and chill in the refrigerator for a minimum of 2 to 3 hours.
5. Optional garnish idea: mint leaves and fresh raspberries.


Friday, July 7, 2017

Almost $7 for a Bottle of Yellow Mustard

            A lot of people are led to believe that because I am a Chef that I don't eat out at restaurants. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Yes, it is not something that I do frequently, but there are times when I just want to let someone else cook for me, or have an evening out with my family.
            Recently, to celebrate the end of the school year, and the great report card results of our youngest children, we decided to do just that. We ended up going to a local restaurant/pub where they have a section for families. We all got settled into our booth, ordered beverages, and waited for our entrĂ©es to arrive. My 11-year old son, ordered a burger and garlic mashed potatoes from the kids menu. When his order arrived he said to me "Dad, can you get the server's attention?"
            "Why?" I asked, "what do you need?"
            "I would like some ketchup and mustard for my burger. It only has mayo and lettuce on it." He replied.
            "No problem." I answered as I got up from the booth and found our server. When I made the request however, I was told that she could bring a ketchup bottle to our table, but the mustard would be an extra charge since they didn't have a bottle of mustard, and she had to get it from the kitchen. I shrugged my shoulders and agreed - I wanted my son to be happy.
            Moments later she approached our table with a bottle of ketchup and a small portioning cup of pale looking mustard. My son took a small amount of the mustard to taste it and it was honey mustard, not just plain condiment yellow mustard. Obviously there was an error, so I took the honey-mustard and approached our server once again. She told me "this is the only mustard we have."
            "You don't have yellow mustard? Just regular hot dog mustard?" I was in disbelief.
            Just as she started replying "no, this is all we have" a Supervisor (I am assuming) was walking by and asked what was happening. I filled her in on the situation.
            "Of course we have regular mustard" she replied and then told the server to get me some.
            Please keep in mind here that I didn't make a big fuss. I am not the type to make a big scene about little things and I always try to treat people with the most respect I can in any situation.
            I went back to the table and shortly after the yellow mustard arrived.
We were astounded by how much mustard was brought to our table - I measured it afterwards and it was 4 tablespoons of mustard, which is 60ml. My son ended up only using a couple of teaspoons of it (how much mustard can you put on one burger anyway?).
            When we got our bill at the end of our meal, sure enough there was an extra charge for the mustard - $1.00! I couldn't believe it, one dollar for four tablespoons of yellow mustard, and surely they didn't expect my 11 year old son to have 4 tablespoons of mustard on one child sized burger, did they? Even if they did, this would be equivalent to $6.67 for a standard 400ml bottle of mustard.
            Walmart was located next door to the pub, and I was curious to know what they were selling mustard for, so we walked over. There one could buy a whole 400ml bottle of brand-name mustard for $1.50.
            Don't get me wrong, it's just one dollar... one dollar isn't going to break my budget. That's not the point. Mustard is cheap and it is considered to be a basic condiment. If they had hot dogs on the menu, would I be expected to pay a dollar for the mustard for it? Next time you are in Costco, look at the huge commercial sized cans of it and also the low price. This is the size and cost that restaurants would pay for the same yellow mustard, and possibly less through their suppliers.
            This is not about restaurants recouping their costs. This is about how little they value customers choosing to spend their money at their establishment. We were a table of four, and we could have chosen elsewhere to go out for dinner... and next time we will.
            This is not the first time we have had problems here. Have a look at my blog post from September 26, 2016 titled "A Pub Without a Steak Sandwich???" and you will see another example.
            Until next time... Happy Cooking... and maybe cooking at home is a better option.

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!