Monthly Archives: May 2011

The quest for the perfect turkey burger

I have been on a quest to find the ultimate turkey burger for quite some time now. Come to think of it, I have also been on a quest to find the perfect pair of black pants for an even longer while now. If you are a woman, you will know exactly what I mean. The ultimate pair of black pants would skim over your hips without actually clinging and accentuating any lumps, bumps or dimples.  With a pair of heels or killer boots, you would look long and lean and your legs would appear to be a mile long. The pants would be perfect for day and night, and depending on what you pair them with, they would be equally at home at a funeral or a night club. I am not so sure such a pair of black pants exists. I have come close, 9 pairs in my closet at last count, but none of them quite right.

But I do believe that my quest for the ultimate turkey burger is finally over.  For a while there I was adding breadcrumbs and egg to the burgers, to help them bind better, but that just made them tough and dry. Then I tried mixing the turkey with garlic and lots of chopped fresh herbs but that was way too overpowering for delicate turkey meat. I thought I had found the perfect one in June of 2008, when Oprah said, “I believe (it) may be the best turkey burger in the entire world.” She was referring to the turkey burger at Mar-A-Lago, Donald Trump’s private club in Palm Beach. If Oprah said they were the best, I had to try them.

The Mar-a-Lago turkey burger is reminiscent of turkey stuffing, chock full of apples, celery and scallions. Then to help keep the burgers moist Major Grey’s Chutney is added to the mix. This is a mango based chutney with tamarind, raisins, vinegar and lots of spices, including cloves. The first time I tried the burgers I did not care for them but I made them several more times, because Oprah said they were the best, and because I could not put my finger on why I didn’t like them. I finally gave up on them when I realized it was the overpowering flavour of cloves that put me off.

Then, last week, while reading the June issue of Martha Stewart Living, I had an “aha” moment. Don’t build flavour into the turkey burger. Ground turkey has a delicate flavour that you don’t want to fool with too much. Leave the ground turkey alone, save for a little bit of olive oil and salt on top before grilling.  Add flavour through the toppings. This one relies on guacamole for moistness, caramelized onions for sweetness, and pickled jalapenos for heat. I have made them twice now in the past 4 days.

Try to find ground dark turkey meat, instead of  ground turkey breast. It has more fat and will be much moister. I decided to top mine with lettuce and tomatoes, as well, when I encountered these beauties at the grocery store this week.

When I was in line at the check-out, the cashier, a young girl, maybe 17 , picked up the tomatoes, made a face and asked me if I wanted to go back and exchange them for ones without any creases or cracks. It was all I could do hold my tongue and not lecture this poor innocent youngster on organic, heirloom tomatoes. Those cracks and creases mean that these tomatoes actually taste like tomatoes, unlike those smooth red orbs that have all the flavour engineered out of them. I just smiled and said, “No thanks, I like these tomatoes.”

I made a simple guacamole with avocados, cilantro, lime and salt. Try to find Haas avocados, the black pebbly ones. I find the flesh creamier than the smooth green-skinned avocados. Don’t mash the guacamole too fine. Leave it a bit chunky.

Cook the red onions on low heat for about 20 minutes, in order to caramelize them.

Toast the buns for extra flavour and crunch. I found some really great ciabatta buns as well as some multigrain foccacia buns. Add some pickled jalapeno peppers from the jar, and sliced tomatoes and lettuce.

To print the recipe for Turkey Burgers, click here.

P.S. I promise to keep you posted if I ever do find that perfect pair of black pants.

Salt and Serenity Hikes the Amalfi Coast Part 2

Last week I posted about my hiking holiday to the Amalfi Coast. Here is Part 2 of my hiking adventure, where I continue on with my Amalfi Coast top 10 faves.

6. The Blue Grotto

On our second day in Capri we visited the world-famous Blue Grotto.  The Blue Grotto is one of several sea caves, worldwide, that is flooded with a brilliant blue light. It wasn’t until I got home and researched (you gotta love Wikipedia!!) this amazing phenomenon, that I fully understood the scientific explanation behind this stunning azure colour.

Basically it has to do with the lighting conditions inside the cave. Sunlight, passes through an underwater cavity and shines through the seawater, creating a blue reflection that illuminates the cavern. I am oversimplifying. If you are a science geek and need a more thorough explanation, check out the Wikipedia link above.

To get to the Blue Grotto, we took a motorboat. Let me tell you, The sea was angry that day my friend.” We all felt more than a  little bit seasick. Once we arrived we noticed lots of little rowboats bouncing up and down in the sea.

Our guide told us that we would have to climb out of our heaving big boat, into the even more violently heaving little rowboat in order to get inside the Blue Grotto. WHAT?? Once I took a look at the cave opening into the Blue Grotto, I quickly understood. It was only about 5 feet wide by about 3 feet high!

We managed to climb into our little rowboat without anyone going in for a swim. The oarsmen rowed us towards the opening and in broken English told us that when he gives us the signal, we all have to lie down flat on the bottom of the rowboat. WHAT?? I did not sign up for this. I was terrified. He yelled, “DOWN” and we all crouched. Unfortunately, I was just behind the oarsman and he sat on my head when I lay down. I closed my eyes and prayed. The next thing I know, we hit a huge wave and water sloshed into our boat. Everyone screamed but no one sat up for fear of getting decapitated by the rock over the opening.

Suddenly all was silent. We sat up and looked around. It was eerily calm and the water was still and the most beautiful azure blue you can imagine. Then the oarsmen broke out into a rousing rendition of “O Sole Mio”.  After rowing around the cave for about 5 minutes we crouched down again to exit and the whole thing was over.

Before we visited the Blue Grotto, I had heard that the oarsmen had a reputation of being rude and most unpleasant, so I was quite surprised to hear him belting out the tunes. When I asked our guide about this, she started laughing. Apparently our oarsman was cursing up a storm in Italian at his fellow oarsman, something about not getting a big enough tip from his last boatload.

When I got home and googled Blue Grotto, I found that someone had posted a video of the entering of the Blue Grotto. You have to see this!

7. Bar Snacks

When we got back to our hotel after our Blue Grotto adventure, we needed a drink in the worst way. We stopped by the bar and my husband was quite impressed with the Macallan Scotch selection. We decided to go back to our room have drinks on our little balcony overlooking the sea.

My glass of Prosecco arrived chilled, with a little napkin wrapped around the bottom so the condensation would not mar the furniture. With our drinks they also sent several little bowls filled with potato chips, pistachios, hazelnuts, marcona almonds and olives. In Italy, apparently, this is how drinks are always served, with snacks, even if you don’t order them. How civilized!

 8. Buffalo milk yogurt

On the 5th morning of our adventure I made a discovery that kind of startled me. At the breakfast buffet in Ravello there was a bowl filled with ice. Resting on the ice were little containers of Buffalo milk yogurt! I’m not sure why this shocked me so much, after all, they make buffalo milk mozzarella, so why not yogurt? Why not indeed! Thicker than even greek style yogurt and not quite as tangy, buffalo milk yogurt was… well not life changing, but certainly morning changing! I get so excited when I discover a food I have never heard of or tasted before.

I gushed on and on about it to my daughter but she just rolled her eyes at me and helped herself to the regular cow’s milk yogurt. I mixed mine with diced peaches, ripe berries and granola. I need a buffalo.

9. Sentieri degli Dei

In English this translates into “Path of the Gods”. On the fourth day of our adventure we got a glimpse of what the path to heaven looks like! We drove high up into the Lattari Mountains and began our hike in the town of Bomerano. There we met our guide for the day, Amalfi naturalist Nicola, or “Mountain Man” as we nicknamed him. I was very excited to begin our hike since today was the first day we got to use our hiking sticks! I felt so athletic swinging my stick until Nicola warned us not to swing it too high or we might poke out the eye of whoever is behind us. Oops, sorry my darling children.

The path, about 1900 feet above sea level goes from Bomerano to the town of Nocelle, and then straight down, 1500, steps into Positano. It is a rugged goat path along the coastal edge and not for the faint of heart or those who suffer from acrophobia. Nicola pointed out wild fennel, wild arugula as well as about 25 other kinds of flora and fauna. He thoughtfully pointed out poison plants and ones that, while they may not kill you, will leave you itching and crying for mercy for several days. We carefully stepped around those. The views of the Mediterranean Sea were breathtaking.

He explained how the steep mountainside had been carved into terraces over the years to allow farmers to grow olives, lemons, nuts and grapes. The fact that this had been done, and still continues to be done, in current times, with hand tools and paths that can only be accessed by donkeys and mules is nothing short of astonishing.

Our guide had told us that we would be having lunch along the way. I kept eyeing Nicola’s backpack and it did not look like it contained anything close to lunch for six hungry adults. I must admit, I was a little worried that lunch was going to be trail mix and water. However, around 12:30, we rounded a corner and came upon an oasis in the middle of the mountain.

An old renovated stone hut sat on a plateau in the middle of nowhere and our hosts greeted us like long-lost relatives. The stone BBQ was hot and smokin’ and the smells emanating from it were intoxicating. All my worries about a trail mix lunch evaporated away. On a  hill, above the hut was a picnic table positioned perfectly to take in the view. The table was set  and platter upon platter of grilled foods were presented to us. We began with grilled onions and potatoes, then grilled zucchini and grilled pumpkin appeared. Homemade thinly sliced salami was served with meaty green olives and fresh mozzarella. A beautiful platter of Caprese salad disappeared almost as quickly as it had appeared.

Just when we thought we couldn’t eat another bite, grilled homemade fennel sausage and grilled smoked scamorza cheese with lemon appeared. We murmured, ever so quietly, that we couldn’t eat another bite but somehow, the sausage and cheese disappeared too. The homemade local red wine went down way too easily and the ceramic pitcher it was being poured from was magically refilled more than once. I felt like I was at a Hogwarts feast.

10. The Italians name geological formations after food!

As we were walking the Path of the Gods, our guide pointed out a huge rock formation with a cave at the bottom of it. She said it was called “Grotta del Biscotto”, (cave of the biscuit), so named because the craggy surface of the rock resembles the local specialty biscotto. Biscotto is a hard small bread that is baked twice, so that it dries out and lasts for an entire year. Then it is soaked in water and eaten, usually in a soup or part of a salad. I just love that food is so embedded in Italian life and culture, that it extends into nature as well.

Salt and Serenity Hikes the Amalfi Coast Part 1

I recently had the good fortune to spend a week on the Amalfi Coast of Italy. My oldest son just graduated from University and we decided to take him and our daughter on a holiday. We have been planning this for a while now. Typically, our family holidays tend to be of the beach variety with very little physical activity and a lots of reading time on the beach. We are all avid readers. We decided to shake things up a little.

In its initial inception, this was going to be a biking holiday. However, after a bit of time and reflection, my husband wisely decided to drop the “B” and add an “H”. So biking became hiking. He realized that we would not get very far if I were along for the bike ride. The decision of where to hike was an easy one. We all wanted to go to Italy. With the help of our wonderful travel agent, Linda, and Butterfield and Robinson, we mapped out an itinerary. Two days on the Isle of Capri, two days in Positano and two days in the town of Ravello. We hiked by day and ate and drank in the evenings. A plan that made everyone happy.

We quickly became immersed in the Italian culture and lifestyle. Here then, in no particular order are my top 10 Amalfi faves:

1. Autogrill!

If you have ever driven on the Autostrada (system of  roadways) in Italy, no more needs to be said. If not, well  let me tell  you, Autogrill  is quite the Italian experience. Basically, Autogrill is a rest stop along the highway. But a totally different species than the North American rest stop. No mere Tim Horton’s or McDonald’s.

For the uninitiated, here is my Autogrill 101 Primer:

First of all, you must go inside. The concept of drive through is totally foreign to Italians. Once you go inside there is quite a disorderly scramble at the cash. No lining up like polite Canadians do. You need to know what you want, so take a minute to peruse the display case.

In addition to sandwiches, they have pastries, brioche and croissants. Then, join in the communal push towards the cashier and tell them what you want. Depending on your Italian language skills, some pointing may be required. Don’t worry, they are  quite used to it. Then you pay and take your little ticket over to the service counter. Again, some mild pushing and surging forward is required. I discovered later that it is good form to take your little ticket and place it on the counter, weighted down with a few coins (as your tip). They will ask you again what you want and, again, some pointing will be required. If you order one of the sandwiches, make sure you gesture towards the giant Panini presses behind the servers.

We had Caprese (fresh mozzarella, tomatoes and basil) Paninis on very good baguette. The cappuccino would put Timmy’s and Dunkin’ Donuts to shame. Once you get your order, you find an empty cocktail height table and stand and eat your food and sip your coffee. Italians don’t do take out. They are a very social people and the mere thought of eating  in your car would cause most Italians to shudder.

The bathrooms are usually downstairs and while very clean, all the toilets in the woman’s washroom are missing seats. So you have to, sort of precariously perch yourself above the bowl and hope for the best. There is usually a bathroom attendant,or if not, a little basket, where you are expected to leave a little tip. Here’s a little tip, “How about toilet seats for women?! ”

2. Stylish Transportation

Although we spent most our days hiking, to get from town to town we needed a method other than our feet. The Italians like to travel in style! To get from Naples to the Isle of Capri, we travelled on a very speedy cabin cruiser. I felt like I was in a James Bond movie. Once we arrived on the Isle of Capri, a convertible taxi whisked us from the port off to the upper town square, where we walked to our hotel. Cars are banned from most of the Island.

3.  Mandorlati from Gelateria Buonocore

While touring the town of Capri on our first afternoon, we couldn’t help but notice the huge line up outside a window of a little shop. When we asked our guide, she told us they have the best gelato in town. Of course we joined the line and soon we were greedily licking gelato from homemade waffle cones. Between the four of us we sampled coffee, pistachio, almond, coconut and raspberry. It was creamy and refreshing, just the thing to revive us from our jet lag stupor.

That night, after dinner as we were strolling back to our hotel, we walked by Buonocore again. Of course there was a huge lineup outside at the gelato window. But inside, the shop was empty.  I decided to go in to see what they sold besides ice cream. We picked out a small sampling of about 6 different little cookies. We started to snack on them as we continued on our way back to the hotel. The pistachio cookies were yummy as were the lemon ones and the pine nut ones, but the almond cookies stopped me dead in my tracks. Fragrant and chewy these were reminiscent of almond macarons but more intense, sort of souped up macaron, studded with chopped almonds. 

I was back at the bakery again the next morning and again that night for more. I was addicted. I discovered that they are called Mandorlati and they are a traditional Italian almond cookie. I was unsuccessful in getting the recipe from the family (a closely guarded secret!), but I plan to play around with egg whites, ground almonds, chopped almonds, almond paste and confectioners sugar and come up with my own version. I’ll share it with you when I figure it out.

4. Lemons on steroids

The Amalfi coast is known for lemons and they are everywhere. We had dinner our first night at da Paolino. The entire terrace has been converted into a lemon grove and you dine under a pergola of lemon trees. An incredibly magical and romantic setting, spoiled only by my worry that one of those ginormous lemons would fall on my head, or worse, into my glass of Prosecco. We were assured by the waitress that before service each evening they shake the trees very well to remove any loose lemons.

Everywhere we hiked we encountered lemon trees. At markets everywhere we saw 2 main varieties of lemons, regular ones and ones which I can only describe as lemons on steroids. They were huge. Apparently these giant ones are used in baking and the making of Limoncello, the most popular export of the region. I was so looking forward to trying this lemon liqueur and sadly, I have to say, I did not like it at all. I subsisted mainly on Prosecco, not that I’m complaining!

5. Rigatoni on Steroids (Paccheri)

I had my very favourite meal of the trip at da Paolino in Capri. I am still dreaming about this pasta dish. I had Paccheri with smoked mozzarella and fennel sausage. Paccheri is a large hollow pasta, similar to rigatoni but bigger. It sort of resembles short pieces of a garden hose. ( To hear this pasta name pronounced, follow this link.

As with most pasta shapes there is a legend about how that particular shape came to be. The fable of paccheri goes something like this:

In the Renaissance era  paccheri was created as a vehicle to smuggle banned garlic cloves from Italy, across the Alps into Prussia (modern-day Austria). Apparently Prussian garlic was puny and weakly flavoured, while Southern Italian garlic was large and pungent. Prussian princes (not to mention the commoners) favoured the stinkier garlic and sales of Italian garlic were robust while Prussian garlic sales languished.

The Prussian government, trying to protect local Prussian farmers, banned the import of Italian garlic. Incensed, the Italian garlic growers worked closely with Sicilian pasta makers and paccheri was created. Each tube of paccheri was perfectly shaped to hide about 4 cloves of garlic and thus the black market trade of garlic into Prussia flourished.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of Salt and Serenity hikes the Amalfi Coast.

Against the Grain (A Lesson in Slicing Skirt Steak)

 

I can remember the first time I ever had skirt steak. It was about 15 years ago and I was in Florida. I was out for dinner with my husband, his sister and her husband. I can’t exactly remember how we found this place. It was a Mexican restaurant called Armadillo. It was in a strip mall in Davie (just south of Fort Lauderdale). When we pulled into the parking lot I had my doubts. It looked like a dump, but the parking lot and restaurant were packed, always a good sign.

I just know my husband is shaking his head incredulously as he reads the above paragraph and thinking to himself, “She remembers a restaurant we ate in 15 years ago and she can’t even remember the details of our wedding day?” Sad but true, I am not a romantic, but food, I have a memory for.

I can even remember what my sister-in-law ordered. “Chile Rellenos”. Chile Rellenos literally means ”stuffed chile.” It is a roasted fresh Poblano pepper stuffed with melted cheese, usually Queso Fresco (a fresh white cheese), covered in corn flour and deep fried. It is typically served with a spicy tomato based sauce. This I remember, as my sister-in-law still talks about the Chile Rellenos she ate there 15 years ago. She also has an excellent food memory. We are great friends! Sadly,  Armadillo restaurant closed about 5 years ago.

I’m not quite sure what prompted me to order the skirt steak, as I had never heard of this cut of meat. But it was part of the Fajita platter and as I watched them bring a sizzling hot black cast iron plate covered in beef to the next table, I knew this is what I had to have. It was like no cut of beef I have ever had before. Rich and beefy, a little bit chewy and so flavourful. I was an instant fan. As soon as I got home I called my butcher and asked him to get it for me. It’s not always available, but I get it whenever I can.

Skirt steak is a long flat cut of beef. It comes from the plate section of the cow. In order to minimize toughness, it is typically grilled very quickly or braised slowly for a very long time. It has very strong graining and the key to tenderness is in slicing correctly. You must slice against the grain. If you slice with the grain you will end up with tough stringy beef. It wasn’t until years later, after I had eaten and enjoyed countless skirt steaks, that I discovered that the “plate” section of the cow is also known as the diaphragm. Had I been given this tidbit of information 15 years ago, I may never have tried this wonderful cut of beef.

The timing of this anatomical knowledge coincided with my taking up the practice of Yoga about 12 years ago. I had been practicing yoga for about 12 weeks and when we got to class one day, Cathie, out teacher said we were going to do a Pranayama practice that day. Simply speaking, Pranayama is the science of breath control. As we lay on the floor we learned different breathing techniques which focused on utilizing both the lungs and the diaphragm. As I lay there, trying to fill my lungs with oxygen, beginning at the base of the diaphragm, I had a hard time not thinking about skirt steak. To this day, over 12 years later, I still get hungry during Pranayama practice.

This week I marinated the skirt steak in cumin, lime, cilantro, jalapenos, garlic and olive oil. Sometimes I make a red wine marinade.

Cumin seeds are toasted and then tossed into the blender with all the other ingredients. The green cilantro marinade smelled like spring.

Just a note to all you cilantro haters out there. I used to be a member of your tribe. Cilantro smelled like wet running shoes to me. But then, one day, magically, I went over to the dark side and became a cilantro lover.  

After a few hours marinating in the fridge I grilled the skirt steak for 3 minutes per side and then let it rest for about 5 minutes before slicing.

The key to great skirt steak, (as well as to a great life)  is to, in the immortal words of Garth Brooks, “Go Against the Grain!”

To print recipe for Mexican Marinated Skirt Steak, here.

It all amounts to a hill of beans! (Pasta with White Beans and Tuna)

 

I have always been a canned bean user. I am just not that organized to know what I am going to cook a day ahead of time, so to remember to soak the beans overnight is just asking too much. Canned beans are a great convenience and I never really gave it that much thought. That is until I started reading about Italian white beans in a jar. First Jamie Oliver, and then Giada De Laurentiis, waxing poetic on the superiority of beans in a jar imported from Italy over domestic canned beans. Who even knew you could get beans in a jar? Could they really be that much better than canned? Of course, I had to see for myself.

For the canned beans, I chose my usual white kidney beans by Unico. The trouble started when I tried to find italian beans in a jar. They did not carry them in the supermarket. I checked at an Italian grocer in my neighbourhood. But I could not find white kidney beans in a jar. They only had cannellini beans. They sure looked the same as my canned white kidney beans. With a little research, I discovered that Italian cannellini beans are exactly the same thing as what we call white kidney beans in North America.  I opened the can and jar, drained, rinsed and tasted.

In a side by side comparison, I have to say I preferred the ones in a jar. The skins were more tender and the beans were creamier and smoother than the canned. The taste was quite similar. Try it for yourself and see which you like better. I also bought a jar of Italian tuna packed in olive oil to try. Quite yummy but I felt so indulgent using it instead of my regular canned, packed in water. It really packs a flavour punch!

I was inspired to dress this pasta with a creamy lemon vinaigrette, created by Toronto chef, Keith Froggett. This has a thick, almost mayonnaise-like consistency that would also be wonderful with asparagus. He suggests blanching the lemon zest in boiling water to remove any bitterness.

Once the dressing is made, it’s just a simple matter of assembly.

To print the recipe for Pasta with White Beans and Tuna, click here.

P.S. Just realized that this is my 100th post since I began blogging 2 years ago! I am quite incredulous that I have reached this milestone.