Wednesday, November 22, 2017

EASY Italian Sausage & Gnocchi Soup

            One of the best things about Italian cuisine can be its simplicity, and one of the best things about colder outdoor temperatures is eating soup. One of the commonly asked questions directed to me is for easy, fast, and delicious soup recipes. This is the one I recommend all the time.

            This soup is hearty and because it is loaded with Italian sausage, gnocchi pasta, tomatoes,
garlic, and incredible cheese it is everything you would expect from an Italian soup... but also very quick and easy to prepare. If you have never heard of “gnocchi” pasta before, don’t despair – vacuum sealed packages of the small dumpling-like pasta shapes can be found at almost all major grocery stores down the pasta aisle.

            Don’t underestimate the choice of the Pecorino Romano cheese as the finishing garnish for this soup as it adds incredible flavour and compliments and balances all the other flavours in this soup beautifully. Large shavings of this cheese are easily prepared with a simple vegetable peeler – shave it directly onto the individually bowled soup portions just prior to serving – this looks much more rustic and gourmet than simply grating it, but either way is fine. If you can’t find Pecorino Romano, a chunk of Parmigiano Reggiano will have to suffice. Until next time... Happy Cooking!

Italian Sausage & Gnocchi Soup
Makes approximately 13 cups

500g raw mild Italian sausage, casings removed and discarded
1 tbsp olive oil
6 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
1.5 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
1 – 796ml can of diced tomatoes
1800ml chicken broth
1 tsp sugar
1 – 500g package of potato gnocchi pasta
1 packed cup fresh baby spinach leaves
1/4 cup thinly sliced fresh basil
Generous amounts of shaved Pecorino Romano cheese

1.     Add the sausage meat, olive oil, garlic, onion, salt and pepper to a large pot. Turn the heat to medium and cook for approximately 5 to 7 minutes until the sausage in cooked through, while breaking up the sausage meat with a spoon as it cooks.

2.     Add the can of tomatoes, chicken broth, and sugar. Increase the heat to medium high to bring to a boil. Once boiling, add the gnocchi and continue to cook for 3 minutes.

3.     Remove the pot from the heat. Stir in the spinach and basil and portion out immediately; garnished with generous amounts of shaved Pecorino Romano cheese.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Chestnuts: Low in Fat, High in Fiber

            It was only about 13 years ago that I first tried roasted chestnuts. It was on a cold winter afternoon while strolling past all of the decorative lights and stores on Robson Street in Vancouver, BC. We came across a street vendor selling these heated little goodies and decided to give them a try. They were incredible. A comforting buttery nut with a flavour uniquely their own, still encased in their shell but scored to ease the task of peeling. I couldn’t have found anything better at the time. Grasping a warm paper sack of roasted chestnuts while the crisp winter air surrounded us was reminiscent of a classic Christmas story.

            As a child, I always came across chestnuts scattered on the ground amidst the fallen autumn leaves, and never thought twice about them. Now I have a completely different outlook. I purchase
chestnuts fresh from the local supermarket when they’re in season, on a regular basis. When selecting them, choose ones that feel heavy and dense for their size and have a shiny outer brown shell that does not collapse when pushed upon. They will keep at room temperature in a cool dark area for about a week, and for approximately one month in the refrigerator in a plastic bag. Alternatively, they can also be frozen for up to six months. Purchasing them from a reputable supplier is recommended if you are unfamiliar with chestnuts, as there is a wild variety named “horse chestnuts” that are inedible.

            Preparing them for roasting is a bit tedious but well worth the effort. While your oven is preheating to 425 degrees, score the brown shell with a sharp knife. Place the flat side of the chestnut down on a cutting board and cut an “x” shape carefully on the rounded side facing upwards. I find that a fine-toothed serrated knife works best. Keeping the shell on while cooking is important for holding in their warmth upon serving. Seal them with a few tablespoons of water in aluminum foil and roast for approximately 50 minutes. Be careful of the escaping hot steam when unwrapping them and serve immediately. Alternatively, place approximately eight of the scored chestnuts in a bowl and microwave for approximately one to one and a half minutes. The shelling process afterwards is not only made easier by cooking them, but also adds to the nostalgic amusement of eating this wonderful treat.

            Chestnuts are not similar to others in the nut family, as they are more perishable and their fat content is significantly less. With only 2 or 3 grams of fat per 100g, chestnuts weigh in far less than other nuts that may contain upwards of 30 to 70 grams of fat per 100g. Chestnuts also have approximately one third of the calories of other nuts and are a much greater source of dietary fiber. One of the downsides to chestnuts however, is that their starchier content contributes to a much higher carbohydrate count compared to other nuts.

            The chestnut tree is actually related to the oak tree and can live to be up to 500 years. They usually measure approximately 50 feet in height but can grow to be over 100 feet tall. Chestnut wood, like oak, is much sought after for furniture building for its fine grains and hard composition.

            Make this wonderfully historic treat part of your holiday season this year, and you may catch yourself humming “chestnuts roasting on an open fire…”.
            Until next time... Happy Cooking!

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Which Salt to Choose?

            In today’s wonderful world of cuisine, salt has evolved from being just another staple in our pantries to a myriad of choices with considerations based on texture, flavour, and health aspects. From sea salt to exotic salt such as “fleur de sel” or Himalayan pink salt, salt is playing a much larger role in our culinary choices.

            With health considerations always affecting more of our daily lives than ever before, regular
table salt has taken quite a beating over the years. More and more recipes are now quoting salts such as “sea” or “kosher” instead of the simple ingredient listing “salt”. This is happening because of the larger crystallized shapes and slight flavour attributes that they offer over table salt. Another reason however, is because sea or kosher salts do not have the additives that regular table salt has and thus offer an arguably cleaner taste.

            This being said, let’s first understand that all salt is the mineral sodium chloride. That’s what makes salt, salt. Looking at the ingredient list on a box of table salt from my pantry, it lists the following: salt, calcium silicate, potassium iodide, and sodium thiosulphate. In other words, there are three additives being combined with pure sodium chloride to make the final product: table salt.

            Should we avoid table salt because of these additives? In a document I received from the Sifto Salt Corporation, it states that in a statistical study based on production averages, the following ingredient percentages are applicable: Salt (sodium chloride) 99.694%, Calcium Silicate 0.250%, Sodium Thiosulphate 0.048%, and Potassium Iodide at 0.008%. If this is true, that the additives are equal to less than one third of one percent, why are they even there and should we be concerned?

            Calcium silicate is added as an anti-caking ingredient to keep the salt free-flowing instead of clumping into a mass. Potassium iodide is what makes table salt iodized and is a source of stable iodine; an important nutrient needed by the body to make thyroid hormones and is added to salt to help protect against Iodine Deficiency Disorders. Sodium thiosulphate, from what I can find out, is added in very small quantities to help prevent the oxidization of the iodine.

            Everyone has opinions, just like they do taste buds, and my preference is to use and recommend good old table salt when it comes to cooking where the salt is going to be dissolved in moisture with a number of other flavourings and ingredients. However, raw applications or finishing procedures, would definitely benefit from pure gourmet salts such as varieties of sea salts, kosher salt, and Himalayan pink salt for example. These applications would include sandwiches, salads and any recipe which requires a finishing salt to be sprinkled on the finished dish. This allows for the consumer of the meal to taste and feel the differences that these gourmet salts have to offer. In comparison to these gourmet salts, table salt would have a slight chemical taste when eaten raw.

            My advice is to help you save money and make sure you have enough iodine in your diet. Use table salt for everyday cooking except when a finishing salt is needed. When gourmet salts are being dissolved in cooking procedures their characteristics that you are paying for tend to be nonexistent and table salt is a fraction of the price. Use and embrace the abundancy of the variety of gourmet salts available to us as consumers, but reserve them for specific applications.
            Furthermore, I received an email asking me the following question: "I see many chefs quoting kosher salt as an ingredient. What is kosher salt and how is it different?"

            My Answer: Kosher salt is crystallized salt that has no additives and is traditionally used in the koshering process of purifying meats. The salt itself is not kosher per say, but the meat that is cured from this process is labeled “kosher”. The crystals of this salt need to be a certain size to efficiently and effectively draw moisture (impurities) from meat in order to classify it as “kosher” in the Jewish religion. If the salt crystals are too fine, then they will mostly just dissolve on the surface of the meat; If the crystals are too large, then they will mostly just sit on the surface of the meat: in either case, the koshering procedure would not be very effective. Chefs will admit that when taking a pinch of kosher salt it is easier to feel how much salt they are adding to a recipe, due to the size of the crystals. I believe that one should let their taste buds be the guide instead… but, like taste buds, everyone has an opinion.
            Until next time... Happy Cooking!

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Add Heat to Spice Up Winter Meals

            The winter months are fast approaching and are the perfect time to add a little “kick” to your menu at home. It is very satisfying to curl up with a bowl of comfort food when the weather is blustering cold, and making it spicier will warm you up even more. Several methods and resources are available to accomplish adding “fire to your fork”.

            The most overused methods of spicing up a dish is the addition of dried crushed chilies or dried ground cayenne pepper. Do you know which spice jars I am referring to? The ones that have not been replenished for years. Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating (slightly), but contrary to popular belief dried spices do not last forever. They eventually loose their punch. Always replenish your stock of dried spices and herbs approximately every ten to twelve months for ground spices/herbs to ensure freshness and flavour stimulating ability. Bulk spice sections at supermarkets make this very manageable and cost efficient. Whole spices (not ground) will keep much longer, so the investment in a small spice grinder will go a long way.

            Dried crushed chilies are good for adding heat to a recipe, but they have a downside. Their heat producing traits are not fully developed until they have been given time to re-hydrate and release their flavour. Although this a good standby when you have no other available options, there are many other ways.

            One product I absolutely love and recommend is Sambal Oelek. This is a crushed chili sauce
product, and therefore needs no re-hydration. I use it in countless recipes and it’s fantastic for adding instant heat to a dish or a different dimension of flavour. Once the jar is opened it will last in the refrigerator almost indefinitely. Available in the Asian/Import food isle of almost every major grocery store, this product is a must for your kitchen.

            Fresh chili peppers have been ever increasing in popularity, and consequently the available options in produce sections have multiplied. They range in varying degrees of hotness with Anaheims being one of the milder options. Jalapenos or Chipotles supply a moderate amount of heat with Scotch Bonnets and Habaneros being some of the hottest. The amount of heat that a pepper provides is measured scientifically in Scoville units developed by a Professor Wilber L. Scoville in 1912. The majority of this heat comes from not only the seeds, but the inner whitish membranes as well. For flavour with less heat, discard these inner portions. When handling hot peppers, be certain to not touch your eyes or other sensitive areas. Make sure to wash your hands thoroughly upon completion. I find that cold water and soap works the best. If hot or warm water is used, the pores in your skin enlarge trapping the pepper oils in your fingers. One of the best precautions is to wear latex gloves, especially when handling extremely hot peppers.

            If the thought of using fresh hot peppers sounds too much like work, there are a number of hot sauces on the market to ease your preparation.
            Until next time... Happy Cooking!

Friday, November 3, 2017

My Famous "Sausage & Fennel Pasta" Recipe

            I always think it's endearing when someone calls me famous, but I disagree... I'm no Gordon Ramsay, Michael Smith, Emeril Lagasse, or Guy Fieri. Now those guys are famous! I guess you could say I'm famous for my great recipes, and maybe the most famous one of all is my recipe for sausage & fennel pasta. What makes it famous though? Has it been eaten by someone famous? Perhaps... but the main reasons are that I have been making this for years; it has been requested many times over by family and friends; and I have received so many compliments on it. So it is my pleasure to share it with you. Of course, being that it is so good, it has been included in my 'best of' cookbook "The Best In Your Kitchen", so if you have that book, you already have this recipe: Page 83 specifically.
            My inspiration to add fennel seed to this sausage pasta dish is because classic Italian sausages traditionally have whole fennel seed in them. However, unless you're shopping at an Italian butcher or deli, chances are the Italian sausages you are buying, don't have fennel seed in them... so I have added them to this recipe, and in abundance I must say. Why, because I love fennel seed and it works great in this recipe.
            The easiest way to remove the sausage meat from the casings, is to give each sausage a squeeze in the middle; twist it at that point (like you were making 2 small sausage links); and then push the sausage meat out the 2 ends of the casing. You can discard the casings afterwards as there is really no use for them.
            You may notice an odd ingredient listed in this recipe: ‘Sambal oelek’. It is a crushed chilli product that comes in liquid/paste form – it is optional in this recipe but I find that it really adds some complexity to the sauce, and with only one half teaspoon the sauce is not spicy. If you want a spicy sauce, then add more sambal oelek or use hot Italian sausage instead of the mild. Sambal Oelek is easily found in any major supermarket down the imported foods aisle, and in almost all specialty food stores. Every Chef knows about the Sambal and we keep it on hand for many applications.
            One other ingredient I want to bring your attention to is the "vegetable stock paste". This is a product of vegetable broth/stock that has been reduced down to paste form (instead of liquid broth/stock). Traditionally one would add one cup of water to one teaspoon of this paste to make one cup of broth/stock. It also comes in beef, chicken, and other varieties. The most common brand is in small glass jars with a brand name of "Better Than Bouillon". I like products like this because it allows me, as the meal maker, to use one cup of other liquids that have more flavour than water, to add to the one teaspoon of paste... because water has no flavour. So, for example in this recipe, I add one cup of full-bodied red wine for my liquid instead.
            Reducing the sauce uncovered in step number 3 is crucial. What you are doing in this step through evaporation, is making the sauce extremely thick, and then when the one cup of whipping cream is added, it will bring it back to regular sauce consistency. What you are basically doing is evaporating a lot of the water content out of the ingredients in the pan, and replacing that flavourless, colourless water with full fat whipping cream. Important: full fat whipping cream of 33% to 35% milk fat must be used: any less fat (like 10% creamo for example) would likely result in it curdling. 
            Let me know how you like this recipe! Happy Cooking!

Dez’s Famous Sausage & Fennel Pasta
Recipe created by Chef Dez
Makes approximately 6 portions

3 tbsp olive oil
500g mild Italian sausage, casings removed
1 medium onion, diced very small
4 - 6 large cloves of garlic, minced
2 tbsp fennel seed
1 tsp salt
A few grinds of black pepper
1 – 156ml can tomato paste
1 – 796ml can of diced tomatoes
1 cup of full-bodied red wine
1 tsp vegetable stock paste
2 tbsp white sugar
1/2 tsp sambal oelek, optional**
400g penne pasta or other favourite pasta shape
1 cup whipping cream
Chopped fresh parsley, for garnish
Grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, for garnish

  1. Add the olive oil, sausage, onion, garlic, fennel seed, salt and pepper to a large heavy bottomed pan.
  2. Turn the heat on to medium-high and cook, while breaking up the sausage, until the sausage is fully cooked and in small pieces, approximately 8 to 12 minutes.
  3. Stir in the tomato paste, diced tomatoes, wine, vegetable paste, sugar, and sambal oelek. Bring to a boil and reduce over medium heat until the sauce becomes very thick, approximately 10 to 15 minutes. Cook your pasta in boiling, liberally salted water to desired consistency (approximately 13 to 15 minutes for penne) during this step.
  4. Once the sauce has reduced, stir in the whipping cream and then the cooked and drained pasta. Serve immediately garnished with parsley and grated Parmigiano Reggiano.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

The "F" Word in the Kitchen

            Hard-nosed Chef Gordon Ramsey has enthralled many in his repeated seasons of TV’s reality show “Hell’s Kitchen”. Although his language is somewhat colourful, to say the least; the “F” word we should focus on in the kitchen is “Flavour”.

            Countless consumers have frequented restaurants and fallen in love with tastes that they desire to duplicate in their home kitchens. The attempts to do so can often be disappointing. This is most likely due to short cuts that people take when choosing ingredients that fit their lifestyles and time limitations.

            For example, I have come across a number of homes that have the large container of peeled, pre-chopped, brine-soaked garlic in their refrigerators. The attractive price and convenience are the catalysts for allowing products like these to enter our homes, but in reality we are sacrificing flavour. Complimenting garlic flavour in a recipe is best achieved by using fresh garlic that has been peeled and prepared at the time the meal is created.

            Lemon juice is another common short cut. Lemon juice comes from lemons, not from a bottle. The taste difference in freshness is incredible. Also by utilizing fresh citrus fruits in recipes, one can take advantage of the essential oils in the outer zest of lemons, limes, oranges, and grapefruit.

            Bouillon cubes/powders are another ingredient that I find in homes that baffle me. Beef or chicken broth comes from, you guessed it, beef or chicken – not artificial ingredients. Upon examination of these cubes or powders you will notice that the first ingredient isn’t even meat derived. There are convenient flavour bases available in better forms at your local supermarket, such as tetra-packs, canned condensed broths or, better yet, jarred pastes.

            There are many ways of creating flavour in recipes, like marinating meats for example, but the best way is to make a conscious decision to make sure every ingredient in a recipe is the most flavourful choice possible. Speaking of marinating meats – you guessed it – you should not be using powdered meat marinades. A fantastic and quick meat marinade recipe made from “real” ingredients is in my book The Best In Your Kitchen available for purchase on my website or from Amazon worldwide – you will never go back to powder.
            Until next time... keep it real, ...and of course Happy Cooking!
            Photo Credit: Food Network Canada/Chopped Canada