A Power Breakfast of Eggs, Tomatoes, and Creamy Tahini! The Shakshouka at Aroma Espresso Bar

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I really have to hand it to my boyfriend for humouring me while I noshed on my warm, saucy, eggy, tomatoey Shakshouka power breakfast at Aroma Espresso Bar.  He didn’t make faces, he didn’t make gagging noises and he also didn’t make any sarcastic “I’m-so-disgusted” comments at me while I was enjoying my meal.  I know what you’re thinking.  “Look how pretty this dish is, why on earth would anyone make comments about it not tasting good?!  And why would it come from your significant other?!”  Because my boyfriend hates tomatoes.  HATES tomatoes.  With a fiery passion.  I have never met anyone who despises them as much as he does.  Sauce on pizza….hmm, okay.  Anything else he vehemently declines.

And he’s really on the fence about eggs.  Loves them boiled, hates them runny.  Doesn’t prefer them scrambled, would never order them poached, and is really only into the egg whites.  Sigh.  Sometimes it’s remarkable how our palates are polar opposites in some ways.  But we love each other, we’ve grown so much together and it’s our quirks and eccentricities that make us who we are as individuals and as a couple.  So I really appreciated how he didn’t ask me how I could eat THAT and concentrated on his own sandwich instead.  He’s my honey after all and he just shakes his head amusingly as I eat.

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This Tunisian and Israeli style breakfast is truly a breakfast of champions!  It really packs a protein punch with a ton of contrasting flavours and it’s quite a fun dish to eat.  Aroma’s Shakshouka, a dish of warm tomatoes and tomato sauce with 2 eggs, tahini sauce and a basket of baked-in-house bread, is part of their every day breakfast menu and it’s one of those dishes that warms you up from the inside out.  I know it seems a little odd to be talking about warm dishes in the summer,  but there are those days when it’s real chilly in the morning and you just want something a little on the heartier side for breakfast to get rid of those goosebumps.  Either that or you’re just freezing from the blasting air conditioning.  Either way, it’s a dish that fills you and it’s fun dunking the bread in the tomato sauce, poking the eggs so the yolks run, dipping the bread in the yolks (can you tell I love dipping my bread in egg yolks?), treating the tomato sauce as both a food and somewhat of a soup, and dabbing tahini sauce on everything as you eat.

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I have to say, the tahini sauce REALLY made the dish for me.  Sure, I love my eggs and the bread-dunking is fun, but there is just something so delicious about the creamy nuttiness of their tahini that is unlike any sauce I have ever had and it’s wonderful because it breaks up that acidicity from the tomatoes.  It completely changes the dish and grounds it, keeping it from being too savoury and too tomato heavy.  I mean, I know the dish is meant to be about the eggs and tomatoes, but I think it was a smart move to include the tahini because it prevents the tomatoes from being too overpowering.

And the bread!  So soft and yummy.  I chose their multigrain to accompany my breakfast (it comes with the dish but you get to choose what kind of bread you want when you order) and I was actually taken aback but how much of it there was.  I know it was technically 2 big slices cut in half to make 4, but goodness did it ever look like a mountain in my little basket!

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Over the last year I’ve become such a huge fan of Aroma Espresso Bar.  Several years ago I felt ambivalent about them and it was only because I always feel that way about chains.  Are you really in love with their food or are you only buying into the popularity, the hype?  Do they really deliver on quality and truthfully, is the food good?  And with chains it’s especially touch and go because we all know some locations just do a better job than others.  My mum feels that way about her coffee.  If she dislikes the cup she got, it’s not necessarily a reflection on the company but possibly on the person who made it (sorry!).

I love Aroma’s food and drinks more and more though and I’m finding it so much fun learning about different foods and different cuisines done Aroma style (a Bulgarian Bureka sandwich!  Spanish and Latin American alfajores cookies!  Turkish coffee!) and trying their salads and sandwiches.  I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE the smoked salmon sandwich (I just had a half sandwich of this yesterday for my afternoon snack.  Yes, that’s right, I have sandwiches for snacks when I’m super hungry!) and quinoa salad (there’s grilled eggplant in it, YUM!) and we already know I’m a fan of their hot chocolate.

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New locations are popping up all over the place so I’m hoping to add lots of new posts for sandwiches and breakfast and drinks!

*****

Aroma Espresso Bar is an Israeli espresso and coffee chain with over 100 locations worldwide.  There are 8 branches in and around Toronto, with shops in Thornhill and Vaughan.  Click here to view the list of Toronto and GTA locations.

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Butterflies, Ooey Gooey Dulce de Leche & a Rainbow of Macarons at The Wedding Cake Shoppe!

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“Which cupcake do you want?”.  “Hmm…I really don’t think I should have one…”.  “But these are your favourites!”.  “It’s okay, you have one, I’m not going to get one”.  “But that’s why we’re here!”  Sigh.  Figures my mum would bail on me.  I look over at my dad and brother.  “Do you guys want one?”  Two head shakes respond back.  “Oh, fine!  I’ll have a cupcake all by myself!”  How disappointing that my whole fam did not join in on my cupcake fun.  My pouty huffy and puffiness did not last long though as my sweet teeth met with the thickest and gooeist of caramels and my eyes fell on the daintest of macarons in the sweetest of colours.  Cupcakes AND macarons – now THAT makes for the perfect sweet treat afternoon snack in my world!  And in a beautiful cake shop no less.  While my parents and brother sat at a little table in The Wedding Cake Shoppe watching me take photos, reposition my cupcake, reposition my macaron box, open my macaron box, take a bite of my cupcake and basically “do my thing” as my mum would say amidst sparkly butterflies, frosty gold finishes, and pastel brights, I salivated at the thought of finally sinking my teeth into The Wedding Cake Shoppe’s macarons for the first time!

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Along with an ooey, gooey Argentinian Dulce de Leche vanilla-caramel-y cupcake (oh my goodness, thickest caramel EVER!), I picked out a half dozen box of macarons ($1.85 a piece – can you believe it?!) for my family and I to share later on that day.  It’s remarkable how much more affordable Wedding Cake Shoppe’s macarons are compared to other patisseries and shops in the city.  I mean, I know we try to avoid making assumptions about people, places and things, but you have to admit, there’s no way anyone would have guessed that macarons coming from a wedding cake boutique would be less than $2 each!  But they are and the girls are always coming up with new flavours so there’s constantly something different to try.

I grabbed a mint chocolate chip (eeee!), chocolate, strawberry, mango, and 2 green teas.  While I can’t tell you which one was my favourite out of the 5 flavours because I didn’t try them all, I can tell you that they are so soft and delicate and they’re great for those who like the idea of macarons but shy away because they’re hesitant about the sweetness.  Much like Wedding Cake Shoppe’s cupcakes and buttercream, their macarons definitely err on the “I’m-not-sickly-sweet” side and they’re a real testament to the shop’s style and approach.  They don’t hide behind sugar; they simply allow flavours to shine on their own the best they can, with of course, a dash of sweet and sassy style!

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*****

The Wedding Cake Shoppe is located at 859 College Street, just west of Ossington Ave.  They are open 6 days a week (closed on Tuesdays) and their weekday hours are from 11am-7pm, weekend hours from 11am-5pm.  You can check out their official website here, and follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

Welcoming the Royal Baby – Cupcake Hugs & Kisses to William & Kate’s Baby Boy!

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royal baby collageIT’S A BOY!!!!  I can see we’ll be hearing and seeing that phrase a lot over the next 24 hours!  So many people all over the world have been waiting with baited breath for the birth of William and Kate’s baby what with holding tea parties, royal-themed baby shower and dessert parties and more.  And now their bundle of joy is finally here and for years to come so many of us will remember the day and where we were when we first heard the news (for the record, I was in a staff meeting where one of my coworkers scared the crap out of us with an excited shriek of, “IT’S A BOY!” after checking her phone).  Time has passed us by in a fuzzy blur and I remember William and Kate’s wedding like it was yesterday when my boyfriend humoured me as I watched their nuptials on television 3 times.  Sigh.  While I’m by no means a tried-and-true royal family follower, this is such a happy time and I want to use this post to send my hugs and kisses and best wishes to William and Kate and their baby boy!

Kale Pesto & Artichoke Linguine, and Summer Strawberries, Rhubarb & Lettuces – Summerlicious at Trios Bistro!

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summerlicious collage 1 trios bistroWhen was the last time you had a makes-me-wiggle-with-happiness meal?  Mine was last Saturday.  Okay maybe it was yesterday when I excitedly ordered a Chicken McNugget Happy Meal and got my adorable Despicable Me toy (shhh, that’s between us).  But if we’re talking fine dining, it was Saturday.  It was a beautiful day.  A little on the hot and gross side, but a picture-perfect day nevertheless.  The seats were cushy, the place was gorgeous, and the food?  Fantastic.  One by one the dishes came: fresh and crunchy bibb lettuce, savoury artichokes bear-hugged by pesto and pasta and juicy berries in a flaky pastry surrounded by vanilla and whipped mascarpone.  I sat back, relaxed, and breathed a sigh of relief as I savoured the first Summerlicious meal of the season and the first Summerlicious meal in two years!

It’s about damn time Ate by Ate got back on the Summerlicious/Winterlicious wagon and believe me, this was no easy feat.  You’d think that a girl who loves food as much as I do would be pirouetting around the city during an annual culinary event like Summerlicious, right?  So wrong.  Summerlicious should be the highlight of the summer season for me.  Over 100 restaurants with special price fixe menus, many of them bursting with seasonal yummies?  You’d think that it was tailormade.  But alas, it is not.  And instead of looking forward to it, I almost dread it.  I know, I’m talking crazy.  I love Summerlicious in theory, in essence.  In actuality?  It drives me nuts.  It’s any wonder I made it out for a meal this year because I was thisclose to bailing again.

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I gotta tell you, not only do I have a hard time choosing between menus and places (which really isn’t even the hardest thing about the event anymore; I’ve accepted the fact that I’m just a horribly indecisive person who hems and haws for eternity), but I have a really difficult time finding a place that serves Summerlicious lunch with a menu I can’t refuse during the weekend!  I would love to do dinner, I really would.  But when the bus service in your area ends ridiculously early for a Saturday night and your close-to-Union-Station options are, hence, more limited, you’re looking at Summerlicious lunch during the day as your best bet.  So during my search, I kept clicking menu after menu after menu, double-checking with the actual restaurant sites to no avail.  So many of the spots I wanted to try only served dinner on the weekend and it became so frustrating I wanted to throw in the towel and give up.

Then along came Trios Bistro at the Marriott.  The beautiful Trios Bistro at the Marriott hotel by the Eaton Centre.  It saved me.  It saved me from banging my head against the wall and going 3 years without a Summerlicious adventure.  Maybe it was meant to be.

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Trios Bistro at the Marriott is a beautiful space.  I’d even say a little on the majestic side with its high ceiling and windows overlooking Trinity Square, lush booth seating and carpeting, and pretty chandeliers.  And it’s peaceful and relaxing.  There’s no rushing; just delicious food in a lovely environment and atmosphere.  During normal, non Summerlicious and Winterlicious days, Trios serves breakfast, lunch and dinner and is open to the public and not just to hotel guests (SCORE!).  Its proximity to the Eaton Centre and to the downtown core in general was perfect for me and it awesome being able to take advantage of a spot I’d never been to.  Their Summerlicious price fixe lunch menu ($20) was perfect for both my boyfriend and I (anything with chocolate, chicken, and fish will satisfy the sweetie.  Just, you know, not together.  Oh and anything without tomatoes and onions as a option is a gold star bonus because he hates the stuff) and we both left happy and full with scrumptious food in our bellies.

Here’s the Summerlicious menu lowdown: I chose their bibb lettuce and heirloom tomato salad as my appetizer (sliced radishes, shaved carrot, and lemon greek yogurt dressing), the linguine vert as my main (oodles of linguine noodles drenched in hazelnut kale pesto, artichokes, baby leeks, a mountain of peas and a smattering of grated grano padano cheese), and for dessert, a local strawberry and rhubarb strudel pastry with berries and glaze, whipped mascarpone and vanilla cream.

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Everything was so simple but so HUGE on flavour.  This was such a fantastic meal and I feel like I got my money’s worth and than some.  I was so happy with the portions (the doggy-bagger in me was absolutely thrilled that I ate everything and didn’t need to take anything away in the sweltering heat!  I am not a fan of wasting food on my plate) and as soon as I took the first bite of my food, I KNEW I had made the right choice to come here for Summerlicious.  The last thing anyone wants is to blow that amount of money on a crappy meal!

There were so many highlights: even with the dressing the bibb lettuce was so crisp and fresh, the tomatoes were ridiculously juicy and the dressing.  OH.MY.GOD.  It tasted divine.  It tasted like this crazy marriage between yogurt dressing and rich buttermilk!  It was so fragrant and the aroma of it literally beckoned me to the salad bowl.  I mean, I was uber hungry to begin with but this just tipped the scales.

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The pasta was perfectly cooked with just the right amount of pesto and olive oil sauce and the artichoke chunks were ginormous and delicious!  It was perfect for me because I love pasta like nobody’s business and it incorporated both things I love and eat regularly (peas and pesto!) with things I don’t eat regularly like leeks and artichokes.  This dish was a gift that just kept on giving with all its flavour and texture.  You had that little bit of starchiness from the peas, the juicy, savouriness from the artichokes, the freshness and nuttiness from the pesto and the smooth, velvetyness of the linguine noodles.

And then the finale: the strawberry-rhubarb strudel!  I was so happy that I could actually savoury the rhubarb.  I know this sounds stupid, but let’s be frank: some places would probably err on the side of strawberry with just a hint of rhubarb.  Not at Trios.  Every mouthful was crispy paper-thin layers of pastry sprinkled with sugar (it wasn’t soggy and it wasn’t stodgy) with juicy berries and sweet whipped mascarpone and vanilla sauce.  It was great because even though it was a strudel there was plenty of surface area to soak up the vanilla and cream and there was a great balance between sweetness and summer berry tartness.

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I am so relieved this Summerlicious meal worked out and while it wasn’t anything necessarily out of my comfort zone, I still got to enjoy many foods that I don’t eat often and for that, it was well worth it on its own.  Because Summerlicious isn’t just about taking risks and trying foods completely out of your element at a discounted rate; it’s about finding that perfect food match that makes a meal memorable from top to bottom.  And I’m so happy Trios Bistro could make that happen for me this time around.

*****

Trios Bistros is located at 525 Bay Street at the Toronto Eaton Centre Marriott Hotel in downtown Toronto just south of Dundas Street West.  You can follow them on Twitter @TriosBistro and you can check out their Summerlicious menus and their regular menus HERE.

A Veggie Gem in the Foodie Treasure Chest – Quinoa, Kale & Vegetarian, Vegan Delights at Lola’s Kitchen on Church Street!

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As someone who isn’t vegetarian or vegan, I sure do love my veggie meals and veggie food spots!  I adore my beloved Mela Cafe, Fresh, King’s Cafe, Earth & City and Sadie’s Diner and could feasibly eat my way through these places and others on my list) for an entire year and be just peachy (okay, not eating sushi would be crazy talk in my world but let’s just hypothetically envision it for this post).  But just when I thought I was content and satisfied with the yummy vegetarian and vegan options in the city, I am knocked off my feet by an amazing, wonderful, DELICIOUS accidental discovery!

After all this time, I had no idea Lola’s Kitchen existed.  LOLA’S KITCHEN.  By Bloor and Church St.  Smack dab in the centre of the downtown hub.  And right under my nose this whole time!  I don’t know whether to be disappointed in myself for having this allude me for so long or to be joyful that this dining destination is now lovingly in my life.  I think I’ll go for the latter, it’s happier.

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And it truly was an accidental discovery.  Long story short, I was googling red velvet whoopie pies in TO and found Lola’s Kitchen on the 2nd page of search results through a random yelp review with a red velvet whoopie photo!  Lola’s changes up their desserts on a regular basis though so the whoopie pies aren’t a regular fixture, but I don’t even care because that search led me to them!  And if you’re wondering why I was searching for red velvet whoopie pies…well, I can’t tell you.  It’s a secret, sorry guys!Anyway,  now that you’ve heard my preliminary gushing, write it down on a sticky note in red marker with exclamation points and circle it!  Oh and post it on your mirror.  Because you’ll want a reminder every day, trust me on this one.

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Lola’s Kitchen, located at 634 Church Street, just south of Bloor, is a fantastic eatery with more vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options than I can count on my fingers and toes!  Housed in a pretty Victorian-style house with a front patio to boot, Lola’s Kitchen dishes out lunch, dinner and weekend brunch to the masses (I know, I might as well float up to heaven right now) with plenty of salads, grain bowls, tacos, burgers, sandwiches and sides to choose from with prices ranging from $11-$14 for most mains, $3 to $7 for small plates, salads and sides.

It is such an interesting space to me, not just because of all the mouthwatering food they offer on their menu but because they are just so damn good at catering to all different types of appetites and people.  I love how they’re not one-dimensional.  Their menu offers a scrumptious array of bistro-style vegetarian and vegan dishes (with some meat dishes available as well!) that are simultaneously trendy and chic yet casual and comforting, surrounded by a halo of health and wellness.  It’s Fresh meets food truck meets bistro meets pub meets fine dining.  We’re talking quinoa and brown rice bowls with fresh vegetables on the one hand and vegan tacos, pulled pork, corn fritters and kale caesar salad on the other.

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Not only is there is there a juxtaposition in foods, there’s also a noticeable difference between clientele!  While I was here stuffing my face I noticed suit-clad business folks at one table and a student couple right next to them at the table to their right.  And then there was me noshing by myself.  I gotta say, it’s not something you see very often.  Let’s face it, we know some spots are very niche.  But Lola’s Kitchen just attracts everyone and that’s the beauty of it.  It’s incredible how they have the atmosphere and food to make a business meeting, friendly get-together, university student hangout and romantic date work in the same space.

While I had a reeeally difficult time choosing between all the awesome food (what else is new?), I opted for their California bowl ($14) because I LOVE grain bowls and rice bowls and the sheer abundance of kale in it made me salivate before my dish even hit the table!  So many of their dishes have veggies like sprouts, kale, beets, cabbage, spinach, peppers, sundried tomatoes and avocado and grains like quinoa, couscous, and brown rice.  The California bowl was a glorious mountain of shredded purple kale, a bed of quinoa, sliced avocado, sundried tomatoes, sunflower sprouts, sliced almonds and sunflower seeds and 3 wedges of grilled tofu, all drizzled with a yummy cider vinaigrette.  This is a pure bottomless pit of deliciousness!

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There was so much texture and colour and flavour and the vinaigrette, if you can believe it, made this dish!  It’s crazy how something so simple can make or break a dish.  I know I love quinoa and kale and avocado and everything else on this plate, so how does one elevate foods that are already so great on their own when they’re put together?  There’s the texture and crunch from nuts and sprouts, and then there’s the vinaigrette that gives the dish so much of its flavour and keeps everything moist.  And it was incredible just how much of it there was on the plate.  You don’t realize it until you start digging in but holy mother of pearl it’s the gift that keeps on giving and it’s exactly the type of meal that will fill you up and make you feel so good afterward.

If I could, I’d come here every single week.  There are that many wonderful options to choose from.  I want to attack their weekend brunch, I want to try their kale caesar salad (polenta croutons oh my god!), their vegan tacos, their black bean, mushroom and walnut burger, portobello and brie sandwich and SO MUCH MORE.  I’m so super excited to finally share this with you guys because I’ve been holding onto this for a month!  I love sharing different dishes from my fave places, but I know there’s nothing like brand new content and material to keep things fresh and exciting so I hope you’ll all try them out and enjoy the food as much as I did!

*****

Lola’s Kitchen is located at 634 Church Street, just south of Bloor St. East.  They are open from Monday to Friday for lunch and dinner from 11am-10pm and Saturday and Sunday for weekend brunch and dinner from 10am-10pm.  Visit their website HERE.

When Life Gives You Bananas…Make Chocolate Chunk-Banana Bread!

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Let it be known that yours truly, Little Miss “I Love to Bake Lalalala”, has never made banana bread before.  EVER.  It’s crazy because it’s one of the easiest things to make!  Easy clean-up, one pan, and one spot to pour the batter in.  And let’s face it, mashing bananas is really fun!  It’s a great stress reliever and the stuff smells lovely.  There really isn’t a reason for my not making loaf cake or bread.  My family actually loves loaf cake!  It’s one of my brother and dad’s favourite snacks and they’ll eat the stuff for breakfast, afternoon snack, and midnight munchie.  Come to think of it, they actually enjoy quick breads and loaf cakes a lot more than cupcakes and probably even cookies (it pains me that nobody in my family loves frosting the way I do, sigh) but I just haven’t gotten around to making any until now.

So what do you do when life gives you too many bananas to eat on their own or to eat with your yogurt?  Make banana bread!  I suppose I could have made the yummy Banana Chocolate Chip cookies from my beloved Hannah Swensen mysteries, but I really wanted to give the loaf pan some hugs so banana bread it was.  And given how I work at Kraft, how folks rave about the banana bread recipes, and also how I have a ridiculous stash of Baker’s chocolate on my baking cupboard, I opted for the Chocolate-Chunk Banana Bread from the growing collection of banana bread recipes on the site at kraftcanada.com.  I LOVE the golden crust that formed on the outside and the chocolate chips were all warm and melty on the inside!

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Recipe for Chocolate Chunk-Banana Bread on kraftcanada.com (serves 15)

Ingredients

  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 tsp. Magic Baking Powder
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup mashed fully ripe bananas (about 3 bananas)
  • 1/3 cup oil
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 4 oz. Baker’s Semi-Sweet Chocolate, coarsely chopped *Deb’s Note: I didn’t feel like chopping chocolate so I used 1 cup of chocolate chips instead*
  • 1/2 cup chopped walnuts

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Directions

  • Heat oven to 350°F.
  • Mix flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in large bowl; set aside.  Beat eggs, bananas, oil and milk in large bowl with whisk until well blended.  Add dry ingredients; stir just until moistened. Stir in chocolate and nuts.
  • Pour into greased 9×5-inch loaf pan. *Deb’s Note: I used parchment paper, I just prefer it*
  • Bake 55 min. or until toothpick inserted in centre comes out clean *Deb’s Note: I took mine out after 50 min.*  Cool in pan 10 min.; remove to wire rack.  Cool completely.

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*****

For more banana bread recipes on kraftcanada.com, click HERE!

Eat, Cook, Love – Beef, Mussels, Foraged Foods & the Taste of PEI Cook-Off Challenge with Michael Smith, Part II!

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maincollage“Oh, it’s delightful to have ambitions.  I’m so glad I have such a lot.  And there never seems to be any end to them– that’s the best of it.  Just as soon as you attain to one ambition you see another one glittering higher up still.  It does make life so interesting.” – Anne of Green Gables, ch. 34, “A Queen’s Girl”

Hot beef being sliced, sauce being drizzled, potatoes being mashed and hands and arms flailing in a flurry of activity.  It’s not every day you get to be smack-dab in the middle of a live cooking challenge, much less one hosted by Chef Michael Smith!  This is Part II of The Taste of PEI Cook-Off Challenge event where I dined on and soaked in everything Prince Edward Island at Mildred’s Temple Kitchen in Liberty Village several weeks ago!  This was so much fun because not only did all of us get to take part in some fun oyster eating and shucking demos, eat Prince Edward Island food, and meet and mingle with fellow food bloggers, travel foodies, and industry folk, we also got the opportunity to get up close and personal with the crazy half hour cooking battle that took place during the event: 4 chefs, 4 appetizers on 4 plates, 4 “secret” ingredients and one hell of an exciting cook-off!

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Now I know it sounds a little strange that I’m saying that we got take part in the cooking challenge.  After all, the event was called the Taste of PEI Cook-Off Challenge for a reason; we certainly weren’t just there to nosh on platters of cheese and veggies and PEI meats and seafood!  There were many things to take away from the event but clearly, the cook-off was the jewel of the treasure chest.  However, there’s a big difference between being a spectator and being right in the middle of the action soaking everything in as its happening.  And that is why this event, in my opinion, was so much fun, so well-executed, and so meaningful for everyone involved.  It wasn’t just us standing around looking on while the 4 competing chefs cooked.  We were all allowed to walk right up to the cooking station where all 4 chefs were preparing their dishes (so long as we didn’t interfere and get in their way of course!), ask questions, take an obscene amount of photos, record videos, and basically salivate and gawk as we did it.

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It was such a warm, welcoming, open atmosphere and we were all made to feel like the event was for us just as much as it was for the chefs, for the media and for the organizers.  It was such a treat and much more interactive than I thought it would be!  We were standing there recording their every move in image and video and none of the 4 chefs missed a beat, like they were made to compete and to showcase their culinary talents in front of an adoring crowd.  And I do mean every move!  We were literally speed-walking and jogging back and forth between chefs snapping photos and it’s almost ridiculous everything we recorded: “Ooo, he put sauce on the plate!” *CLICK* “Ooo, she’s slicing the beef!” *CLICK* “Check out those waffle chips!” *CLICK* “Did someone drop something?!” *CLI-okay, maybe not*  You get the idea.  It was all part of the experience and I’m really grateful that we weren’t given the red tape or the boot to stay clear.

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The chefs taking the “Oyster Oath” before competition!

The 4 wonderful chefs and aspiring culinary giants that took part in the PEI cook-off challenge were Keith Hubbard from Fanshawe College (far left), Trevor Littlejohn from Niagara College (2nd from the right), Chrystalla Papachristou from Humber College (far right), and the cooking challenge winner that night, Lorelei Simbulan (2nd from the left) from Liasion College!  The task?  To create ONE appetizer dish FOUR times for four plates using PEI ingredients (mussels, beef, potatoes, etc.) AND to incorporate at least ONE of the FOUR “secret” PEI foraged ingredients!  The four foraged ingredients (cattails, mussels, fiddleheards and spruce shoots) are foods that really make Prince Edward Island shine and they were all personally foraged by Michael Smith for this very event.

The event was about cooking and eating and the love of food, yes, but also about doing things out of your comfort zone, opening yourself up to new experiences, and to really become one with your food in whatever way that you can.  And Michael Smith does this by foraging for wild ingredients and harvesting them, getting the hands and feet dirty (literally putting on those wellies and sticking your hands into a swampy area and grabbing those cattails out!) and learning about what your hometown has to offer.  Because little do we know, food could be staring us in the face in our own neighourhoods; we just have to find ways to explore, research and get to know the food possibilities that surround us.

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Chefs hard at work!

The chefs had 30 minutes to prepare their appetizers on 4 plates using whatever was available to them in the kitchen “pantry” (SO totally Chopped-like on Food Network with the secret ingredients, stocked pantry, and sweaty countdown to the finish line!) and in the end, they would be judged by Michael Smith and 3 selected judges and a winner would be crowned with a prize of $500 and bragging rights!  We watched the cook-off from start to finish from the moment the chefs raced to the pantry shelves and table to the last seconds of plating.  And in the end, not one chef make an appetizer that was similar to anybody else’s.

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Trevor’s dish!

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Lorelei’s dish!

Keith went, in my mind, the chic pub-style, comfort food route with a grilled strip loin with apple cider vinegar and smashed garlic served with fiddlehead, spruce shoots and potato soup, apple and blue cheese mussels and crispy waffle chips* (I am such a sucker for waffle chips, they are just so darn cute!);  Trevor‘s dish oozed steakhouse gourmet with a sesame grilled strip loin (seeing those slices of of strip loin made me drool, oh my gosh) with spruce shoots and Sriracha served with a fiddlehead and potato puree, carrot and green apple citrus slaw with bacon, sticky soy and beer braised mussels and topped with dulse potato hickory sticks*.

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Chrystalla’s dish!

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Keith’s dish!

Chrystalla went contemporary with lots of fruity, flavourfuls twists with a grilled strip loin steak marinated with spruce shoots and grape seed oil served with fiddleheads sweetened with honey, orange juice and orange zest and potatoes sautéed with mussels, coconut milk, a hint of cream and dulse, garnished with cattails marinated in white wine vinegar and grape seed oil* (truly like a mosaic of edible art!); and finally, Lorelei’s was a petite “big things come in small packages” warmth and comfort of a delight: pan seared medallion of beef seasoned with salt, pepper and spruce shoots served over Dijon and chive mashed potatoes with Panko and dusle mussels and a garlic butter sauce* (which just about made my stomach growl!).  So many different interpretations and styles and yet they all worked together as one cohesive food presentation.

winning cook offAfter careful deliberation, Lorelei Simbulan from Liasion College was crowned winner of the Taste of PEI Cook-Off Challenge with a big fat cheque of $500 to take home!  Watching the 4 chefs duke it out Chopped and Iron Chef-style was incredible (no easy feat to plate the same dish 4 times and to keep things consistent!  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched Chopped or The Next Iron Chef or something or other and one judge will love it and another will say, “um, mine was undercooked!”) and it was such a fun, eye-opening experience to see them push their creative minds for the love and passion of food and cooking.  A HUGE thanks to Tourism PEI and Mosaic for organizing the event (*and for providing us bloggers with all the nitty gritty details of all the ingredients that went into the chefs’ final dishes!), to Mildred’s Temple Kitchen for providing their beautiful space for the event, to all the great people I met that night (shoutouts go out to Alex Ward from Fresh Juice, Dave and Deb (my name twin!) at ThePlanetD, Brian @ProjectBLT and The Huffington Post, and Foodies Inked) and to Chef Micheal Smith for hosting, brining PEI to TO and for being an inspiration all these years.