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 


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.