Summerlicious Toronto 2011

Summerlicious is an annual restaurant event in Toronto. During Summerlicious, participating restaurants offer special lunch and dinner menus where guests can have lunch for $15, $20 or $25 and dinner for $25, $35 or $45 – all of which include an appetizer, main and dessert but not drinks, taxes or gratuity. Whether dinner is $25 or $45 depends on the quality of the restaurant.

Chain restaurants are often shunned from the selection process, and many high-end city favourites participate in Summerlicious. Other cities are starting to realize the advantages of such promotions, as Ottawa recently offered special restaurant deals during its winter festival, Winterlude, where restaurants such as Atelier offered a similar style of prixe-fixe menu at a reduced cost.

My friend Melanie and I headed to Wildfire Steakhouse & Wine Bar, which is on the higher-end of things. Here, a full meal for one would ordinarily cost around $100 not including any drinks.  On this evening, our separate tabs were just over $80 after tax, not including tip but including…several drinks.

 

Portion sizes are expected to shrink slightly and key ingredients may be downgraded under a Summerlicious menu. Wildfire Steakhouse’s dinner menu is posted online (which restaurant ordering slowpokes like me are always very grateful for). One can easily see the regular surf and turf main ($55) includes an 8-ounce filet mignon and full lobster tail, while the Summerlicious portion (one-third of an entire $45 meal) is a 4-ounce beef tenderloin and a 1/2 Nova Scotia lobster. Appetizers and desserts are similar (bocconcini in the Caprese salad as opposed to Fior di latte mozzarella) and may be scaled down in selection. In other cases, the Summerlicious offerings may be worlds apart from what’s offered on the regular menu.

Our lovely server Barbara brought us bread and tasty homemade hummus while we made up our minds. We each had the surf and turf followed by New York cheesecake, while I had the shrimp martini and Melanie tried the grilled calamari to start. The shrimp martini came with a zesty citrus-infused vodka seafood sauce and Melanie enjoyed her first taste of grilled calamari. Suggested wine pairings for the Summerlicious selections were also listed on a nearby card, which we took full advantage of. I also pulled the same greasy weasel trick my sister Hannah likes to pull on other diners, waiting for the other person to flail about while trying to pronounce some odd wine selection and then gleefully saying, “I’ll have the same!”

To start, a caesar, followed by 2007 Da Luca Primitivo-Merlot and for dessert some wonderful grown-up Iced Cap called a Pick Me Up that Barbara had the bartender concoct for us using Bailey’s, Grand Marnier, Disaronno and espresso. We shared a pot of spicy drawn butter and much of the main was spent in silence as we focused on cracking shells and gnawing on lobster legs. My beef tenderloin was rare, cut like butter and was served on thick mashed potatoes. Dessert was your average New York cheesecake, but that was exactly what I wanted.

While I was enjoying my surf, turf and Merlot, Matt was at home burning a Stouffer’s Skillet Sensations to the bottom of a saucepan.

These types of restaurant promotions are phenomenal. They allow us broke-ass normies to experience food and restaurants we’d never be able to afford otherwise, and the restaurants are able to pull in customers during the slowest times of year. Toronto also produces Winterlicious for the same lull that’s seen during the colder months when no one dares venture outside.

Contributor Heather Rose is a freelance writer living in Toronto with her puppy, Bodie and boyfriend, Matt, one of whom enjoys her culinary experiments more than the other. She applies her life-long philosophy – “I did my best” – to all her recipes and cooking experiences. Check out her website at www.heatherrosewriting.com

Funky Breakfast Grits

We discovered the awesomeness of grits on our last road trip through the American South. Creamy, buttery cheesy goodness. This will be my second attempt to get my Canadian friends to try this amazing southern staple. Once you have good grits you will be forever sorry that I introduced you to them because they are not waistline friendly. There are no DIET grits.

My last attempt to convince you skeptical Canadians was with Cheesy Grits and Shrimp. I do not understand why, but there are still doubters among you. Maybe you didn’t want to risk the shrimp, I don’t know. So, this time, I’m going to start you off slow and easy. Breakfast grits. Quick, rib sticking, delicious. You can add a side of Canadian bacon or regular bacon, or pour maple syrup over them and pretend you’re not really eating GRITS!

Recently, I came across a recipe for Grits with Corn, Goat Cheese and Roasted Tomatoes on The Kitchn. It reminded me of the creamy wonderfulness we stumbled on at Tomato Jam on a sunny morning in Asheville, North Carolina. This was our first ever time having grits as they were meant to be. Grits that would make any southern momma proud.

I’m going to change The Kitchn recipe up a bit and roast the corn. Then I’m going to fry an egg and put it on top just like they do at Tomato Jam. Try grits, dammit! You are really gonna like them.

Uncle Funky’s Breakfast Grits with Goat Cheese, Fire-roasted Corn and Roasted Tomatoes
Adapted from The Kitchn and Tomato Jam
Serves 4

1 pint cherry tomatoes, sliced in half
1 cup grits (corn meal, polenta)
1 1/2 cups milk
1 1/2 cups water
2 cobs of corn, salted, peppered and rubbed with olive oil
1/4 goat cheese (or cheddar if its your preference, but use more)
1/2 tsp of salt (more if you prefer)
3 tbsp of butter… or more.  This is one instance where more is better. You can’t use too much butter in grits 🙂
4 eggs
Olive oil to drizzle

Directions:
1. Heat oven to 400 degrees. Toss tomatoes in a little olive oil and salt. Spread out in a single layer in a baking pan and roast until a little charred about 40-45 minutes.

2. Turn on grill and roast corn on the cob until a little char appears and corn is slightly cooked, about 7 minutes. Turn to char all over. When cool enough to handle, remove kernels by placing the cob point down in a bowl and using a sharp knife to slice them off neatly.

3. About ten minutes before tomatoes are ready, heat water and milk in a pot until foaming, about to boil. Slowly whisk in grits. Don’t dump them or they will be lumpy. Turn down heat to low and whisk until the grits tighten up. It happens fairly quickly. Continue to whisk for two or three minutes. Add in salt and butter. Taste add more butter and salt if you wish. Then add in cheese, then corn. Mix until all is incorporated and remove from heat. Cover while you fry eggs to keep the grits hot.

4. Fry eggs and place grits in serving bowls. Serve with tomatoes and fried egg on top. Drizzle a little olive oil on top and serve immediately. Ahh, comfort food. You will give up oatmeal and cereal for breakfast.

Click HERE for a printable version of this recipe.


 

Don’t Judge Me: Rachel Ray’s Mac & Cheese Dog Casserole

New Contributor alert! Heather Rose, the only professional writer in the family, makes her Happy Mouth debut with this post. Heather, meet everyone. Everyone, meet Heather.

After a mid-summer cottage trip, all that inhabits the kitchen is leftover barbeque food, no barbeque – nor buns – to be found, it seems. Portable cooler stock like hot dogs and cheese with ever-present pantry items: pasta, onions and olive oil. With this in mind, Google spits this out:

http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/rachael-ray/mac-and-cheese-dog-casserole-recipe/index.html

Mmm. Perfect. Well, who doesn’t secretly love gooey, cheesy things mixed with hot dogs? I certainly wouldn’t want to meet them. Hot dogs and cheese, it’s perfect comfort food. Don’t judge me.

The Food Network is the default channel here. It provides great ideas and inspires better home cooks. But Rachel Ray’s grating voice usually sparks a frantic dive for the remote.

It’s easy to envision Food Network web elves typing up Food Network celebrity recipes for their website, but this one looks to be written by Rachel Ray herself. As a result, the directions seem a tad unclear. I suspect the “1 turn of the pan” crammed between various directions means to spin the pan around in a circle while making “whoosh” sounds to thoroughly coat the pan with the oil or butter.

When testing random recipes found online, read the comments for the best results in your finished dish. Once you pass the “This is disgusting”, “How dare you” and “I’m shocked at the number of parents who fed this to their children” comments on this particular recipe, you’ll note it’s an apparent consensus that Rachel Ray has left out “flavour” in the ingredients list, resulting in a bland, tasteless Mac and Cheese Dog Casserole – but wait. By skimming the comments in many half-decent online recipes, you can get a good idea of what should be left out or added, as well as even better cooking instructions including times and temperatures from informed home chefs as opposed to paid television personalities.

 

Grating your own cheese gives the Mac and Cheese Dog Casserole a rustic feel.
Before baking.
Baked!
Mmm…pink weenies!

 

Remember…no judging!

Tips for the best Mac and Cheese Dog Casserole:

  • Don’t feel down on yourself when this becomes a “more than 30-minute meal”. Rachel Ray has her own television show and you don’t for a reason: she cheats.
  • Don’t use beer, use chicken broth to eliminate a “funny” taste this recipe seems to have.
  • Don’t put ketchup inside of it (a further effort to eliminate the “funny” taste…but give it a generous slathering of the red stuff before serving) and add more mustard instead.
  • If desired, chopping a can of stewed tomatoes into mac and cheese tastes delightful.
  • Add several generous dashes of Worstercececestershire sauce.
  • Crumble thawed hashbrown patties on top (and maybe add a few inside!) for a nice crust. Tater Tots would also be delicious, but concocting a Mac and Cheese Dog Tater Tot casserole could lead to your kitchen being ground zero of a horrifically amazing culinary cataclysm.
  • Melt some cream cheese into the cheese sauce for extra creaminess.
  • Use more hot dogs than humanly necessary.
  • Macaroni is lame, don’t hesitate to use 1/2 rigatoni and 1/2 penne if that’s all you have.
  • Chop up some fresh something or other for needed nutrients, colour and flavour. A generous bunch of chopped fresh sage works well.
  • Consider putting Frank’s Hot Sauce in it – it’s begging for it – but don’t if your boyfriend’s sensitive tummy will become upset with you.

Guest contributor Heather Rose is a freelance writer living in Toronto with her puppy, Bodie and boyfriend, Matt, one of whom enjoys her culinary experiments more than the other. She applies her life-long philosophy – “I did my best” – to all her recipes and cooking experiences. Check out her website at www.heatherrosewriting.com

“Oh… what are you uh… doing there? …grating some cheese?”

 

Bucatini and Memories of Rome

Is there anything more life affirming than a simple pasta made with fresh ingredients, shared with a loved one, a bottle of red wine, and lingered over on a warm, breezy Canadian summer evening in early July? It is truly an experience unto it’s own, however for me it evokes memories of pastas savored in sunny Rome on my first and hopefully not last visit.

Bucatini all’Amatriciana is a classic Roman dish. Simplicity at it’s finest. Prep time is short. Throw a few ingredients into a pan and while the sauce burbles happily, start to cook your pasta and before your rerun of Everybody Loves Raymond is finished you will have dinner. Uncork some red wine, grate some fresh pecorino and head out to your sunny deck or patio. Enjoy.

Because this dish is so simple and boasts few ingredients, the quality of those ingredients is important. I use only San Marzano tomatoes. They are grown in Italy in volcanic soil, imparting a richness not found in most canned tomato varieties. Generally they are around $4.50 a can, but remember they are the star of this particular show. Be aware that San Marzano “Style” tomatoes are the same tomato but not grown in Italian soil and are cheaper. A subtle difference, but we are trying to recreate memories of Rome. To save time, I use President’s Choice diced pancetta. You can use any long pasta, but bucatini, a long, hollow, straw-like, slurpy pasta, is traditional and available even in regular grocery stores so why not try it?

Bucatini all’Amatriciana
Servings: 6
Source: Chow (adapted)

Ingredients
2 tbsp. olive oil
1 tbsp. unsalted butter
1 medium yellow onion, chopped, 1 cup
4 ounces pancetta, cubed
1 28 ounce can whole San Marzano tomatoes, coarsely chopped with juices
1 1/2 tbsp red chili flakes
1 pound  bucatini or pasta
pecorino cheese, for serving
3 tbsp parsley, chopped, garnish

Method
1. Heat olive oil and butter in a large frying pan over medium heat. Add onion and cook until golden, 3-5 minutes. Add pancetta and cook until slightly crisp, 3 minutes more.

2. Add tomatoes and their juices. Add chilli flakes, salt to taste and reduce heat to medium low, and simmer for 10 minutes.

3. While sauce simmers, bring a large pot of water to a boil and cook pasta. Drain pasta but do not rinse, add to frying pan, and toss to coat. Add pasta water to thin if necessary.

4. Serve with grated Pecorino.

Click HERE for a print-friendly version of this dish.

Spicy Southwest Shrimp Pasta

A little over 20 years ago (gasp!), I was on a business trip to Los Angeles and was staying in a hotel in the middle of Canoga Park, a cross between an office park and strip mall hell. Coincidentally, my brother Jim was also in the same area at the same time for a business trip as well. We decided to meet up at a local chain restaurant (I won’t mention their name but it rhymes with “Cheesecake Factory“) for dinner.

If you go back 20 years and examine the dining options in Ottawa at the time, the Cheesecake Factory would easily compete with the best Ottawa had to offer – bad original theme restaurants (GuadalaHarry’s, I.P. Looney’s), snooty French restaurants without the quality to back it up and already-tired steak and roast beef houses.

I ordered a pasta dish that came with sauteed shrimp, southwestern spices and a hint of BBQ sauce and vowed to try and improve upon the dish when I got home. I’ve been making this dish since then and probably haven’t made it the same way twice (like chili, I go by whim and what’s on hand) but follow a basic framework that provides a consistently good result.

Spicy Southwest Shrimp Pasta
Serves 4

1 pound wild-caught gulf shrimp
Red pepper seeded and diced
1/2 large sweet onion, diced
1 cob of fresh sweet corn, cut off the cob or about a cup of frozen corn – NEVER canned!
1/2 cup of your favorite BBQ sauce
1 tbsp. Southwest spice mix*
1 tbsp. Olive oil
1 pound of long, thin pasta noodles

Instructions:
1. Peel and clean shrimp and toss with spice mix and set aside

2. Fill pasta pot with salted water and set to boil

3. Add oil to hot, deep-sided sauté pan and add onions and red peppers. Sauté until tender and slightly browned on the edges.

4. Add corn to pan. Add shrimp and after the shrimp is cooked, mix in BBQ sauce and let simmer for 10 minutes

5. Place pasta and water and boil until cooked. Drain pasta and add to sauté pan with sauce and toss well.

* Southwest Spice Mix
If you can’t buy some pre-made, use below as a guide. It keeps for a very long time in a cool, dry place

2 tsp. dark brown sugar
1 1/2 tsp. paprika
1 1/2 tsp. garlic powder
1 1/2 teaspoons ground black pepper
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tsp. Chili powder
1/2 tsp. Cumin
1/2 tsp. Oregano

Click HERE for a printable version of this recipe.