Confessions of a Celebrity Judge

Sunday, June 29, 2014
Photo courtesy of Ribfest
Yesterday was the culmination, and the ultimate payoff, of all my experience as a food blogger. The many years of testing recipes on behalf of my readers and posting them online paid off in the quintessential perk.

Yesterday, I was a celebrity food judge at Toronto Ribfest.

Here's what happens when you're a celebrity judge: You report to a VIP tent 20 minutes before judging begins. You meet the other judges, maybe even pose for a selfie with one of them. You proceed to a stage where you sit in front of a couple of hundred people who are prepared to watch you eat chicken for an hour. (Okay, maybe a few were there to watch the Colombia/Uruguay World Cup match, showing on the screen beside the stage.) You get samples of sixteen of the best pieces of barbecued chicken you've ever eaten, served up by vendors like Pistol Pete's, or Bad Wolf, or Hawgs Go Wild. You rank this chicken (identified by number only) in terms of appearance, flavour and overall excellence. And you do all of this while trying your best not to cover the table, and yourself, with barbecue sauce.

I had the honour of serving on a panel with Mark Giordano of the Calgary Flames (far left in top photo) and Ali Hassan, stand-up comedian and chef (far right). I sat next to Matt Hart (with me in the photo above) of Indie 88, the one radio station everyone in my family loves, and we talked about music between plates of chicken.

But the real celebrities are the people who run Toronto Ribfest, and who volunteer at the charities that benefit from it. People like my friend Hugh, who's a co-chair of the event, and who hopes to raise half a million dollars for charity over Ribfest's five days. People like Jennifer, who sat on my left side at the judging table, and who serves as chair for Stonegate Community Health Centre. Thanks to these dedicated people, and many others like them, our community is a little more welcoming to those who need the help most.
With co-chair Hugh Williams and fellow celebrity judge Maurice Blitz.
Photo courtesy of Ribfest.
There's no recipe for barbecued chicken today, because how could I compete with the sixteen best that Ribfest had to offer? (Also because I may be giving chicken a pass for a couple of days.) Instead, I'm sharing a recipe for risotto, something that will appeal to carnivores and herbivores alike.  This risotto is light and delicious and, contrary to popular belief, doesn't require constant stirring. Just give it a stir every couple of minutes, and you'll be a celebrity in your own home.

Corn, Asparagus and Basil Barley Risotto
(from Eats Well With Others)

Note: This risotto would also be great with sliced cremini mushrooms or garden-fresh peas.


4 cups vegetable broth
4 cups water
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 onion, chopped
salt and black pepper, to taste
1 cup barley
1/2 cup white wine
1 pound asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1/2 inch slices
1 1/2 cups corn, fresh or frozen
1 cup basil, thinly sliced
1/4 cup parmesan cheese


Combine the vegetable broth and water in a medium pot. Bring to a simmer.

Heat the olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onion and a pinch of salt, and sauté until tender, about 3 minutes. Stir in the barley and cook for a minute, stirring constantly. Ad the white wine and cook until almost totally evaporated.

Pour 2 cups of the heated broth mixture into the pot with the barley. Cook, stirring frequently, until almost evaporated. Then add the broth mixture 1 cup at a time, only adding more after the rest has almost evaporated, stirring frequently. Repeat until barley is cooked through and tender.

Add the asparagus with the final cup of the broth mixture, simmering until almost evaporated. Stir in the corn and cook until heated through.

Remove from the heat. Season to taste with salt and black pepper, and serve with basil and parmesan.

Thursday's Child: Kew Village Market

Thursday, June 26, 2014
Last summer, we were in England for Andrew's cousin's wedding. After a lovely ceremony on Saturday, we spent our final day visiting Kew, a village just west of the City of London. We went to see Kew Gardens, but we were fortunate to be there at the beginning of May, the first day in 2013 that their village market was open.

One Sunday a month, the streets in Kew Village are closed and the town opens up to a pedestrian market. The market is run by the community to raise money for local charities. It's a great cause, but even without the charitable aspect, it's a fun opportunity to enjoy a lovely town and support small businesses.

We counted between thirty and forty stalls at the Kew Village Market the day we visited. There was a beautiful assortment of seasonal produce; one retailer sold a great selection of British apple varieties. Quack's Pickles, whose sign is pictured at the top of this post, apparently specialized in Preserved Patagonian Squirrel Fish Organs. (Sorry, I can't vouch for those personally.) Other vendors sold an incredible array of goods from venison to ginger marmalade, from black pudding to Earl Grey macarons.

We were well-fortified by a delicious lunch at the Kew Greenhouse Cafe, and ready to tackle Kew Gardens. I'll write about that next week!

Trust me

Sunday, June 22, 2014

I was walking
Sore-footed, under hot sun, hot pavements.
Was it then I bought a peach? That's as I remember.
From a stall near Charing Cross Station.
It was the first fresh peach I had ever tasted.
I could hardly believe how delicious.
At twenty-five I was dumbfounded afresh
By my ignorance of the simplest things.

- from "Fulbright Scholars", by Ted Hughes

Sometimes the simplest recipes are the best. I knew the moment I saw this simple, four-ingredient recipe that I'd love it. I tried it first with raspberries, and thought it was wonderful. But I couldn't wait to try it with peaches - even though they're not officially in season yet - and it was divine. Imagine how great it'll be when I'm making it with perfect, locally-grown fruit!

Trust me - this is one of those recipes that is easy to overlook, but don't do it. This dessert is sensational, and I'll be making it for the rest of the summer.

Peaches with Mascarpone, Pistachios and Honey

5 fresh peaches, skinned, halved, and stones removed (or 3 cups raspberries)
3 Tbsp mascarpone
3 Tbsp best-quality liquid honey
50 grams (2 ounces) shelled pistachios, roughly chopped

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees, and grease a medium sized ovenproof dish with a little butter, or line with parchment paper.

Place peaches, cut side up, in the ovenproof dish. Cover with foil and bake in the oven for 20 – 25 minutes or until peaches are soft. (Note: if using raspberries instead, roast for 15 minutes.)

While the peaches are cooking, mix together the mascarpone and honey in a bowl.

Tip the pistachios into a non-stick frying pan and toast over high heat for a minute or two, tossing regularly to avoid burning. Take off the heat and set aside to cool.

Remove the peaches from the oven and spoon the mascarpone and honey mixture into the cavity of each peach half, dividing the mixture equally. Serve the peaches with a little extra honey drizzled over the mascarpone and the toasted pistachios scattered on top.

Contest Winner

Just a quick post to announce the winner of the Third Thursday Community Potluck Cookbook, and it's Joanne of Eats Well With Others. Congratulations, Joanne! I'll be in touch about making arrangements to send it to you. Hope you love it as much as I do!

Thursday's Child: Los Tarrales Reserve, Guatemala

Thursday, June 19, 2014

As we travelled from the western highlands in Guatemala back to Lake Atitlan, we spent a night at Los Tarrales Reserve. For us, it was a pleasant one-night stay to break up a long drive, but for most of the other patrons it was the endpoint of a pilgrimage.

Los Tarrales is one of the best-known places in Central America for bird-watching. Its location in the lowlands, next to a 3500-metre volcano, makes it home to a huge variety of bird species. (Their website lists 340 birds sighted on the property.) On one of the advanced trails, a skilled birder might see close to 100 species in a single day.

While we were there, apparently the place was full of American and English ornithologists. I say apparently, because bird lovers tend to keep different hours than we do. We went down for dinner at 6:30, and had the dining room completely to ourselves. The others had eaten early and retired to their rooms to prepare for an early morning.

How early? Well, we were up for a pre-breakfast walk around the lake and forested area adjacent to the main buildings. With the assistance of one of the guides, we saw (and heard) a variety of birds, including the lovely Blue-Throated Motmot, the Turquoise-Browed Motmot, and the Cinnamon Hummingbird. However, the really serious birders had been up since 3 a.m. to get to the upper reaches of Atitlan Volcano as early as possible, to search for the elusive Horned Guan and other varieties.

Lest you think our hike was some gentle stroll, I hasten to assure you that our trail was sufficiently dense that Andrew got lost, and our guide had to double back to bring him to the breakfast table safety.

Cookbook Giveaway

Sunday, June 15, 2014

I'm sometimes asked to review books or products on my blog. Most of the time I'm not interested. My blog isn't intended to be a business, and I write my posts about the recipes and cookbooks I find on my own.

I was happy to make an exception for today's post. My blogging friend, Nancy Vienneau, has just published a cookbook that I'm excited to share with you. Each section of Third Thursday Community Potluck Cookbook focusses on one month, and uses the ingredients that are at their peaks in that month. Nancy ran a catering company for sixteen years and still writes for several food publications on a regular basis. Beyond that, she has given much back to her community. She teaches cooking classes at the food bank, and is a huge supporter of local farmers' markets.

There were so many recipes in this book that I was eager to try. The Smoked Gouda and Spring Pea Risotto, and the Green Beans and New Potatoes in Mustard Cream, both sounded wonderful. The Spring Greens with Crispy Herbed Goat Cheese Croquettes have my name all over them. In the end, I couldn't pass up this lovely seasonal Cornbread Panzanella with Real Ranch Dressing. I substituted roasted peppers for the tomatoes in the original recipe, but otherwise stayed fairly true to Nancy's version. It was delicious! The cornbread panzanella was a lovely twist, and when matched with colourful vegetables and homemade dressing, made a vibrant salad that I can't wait to make again.

Nancy's publishers, Neilson Books, have generously offered to give a copy of her book to one of my readers. If you're interested in participating, just leave a comment below. If you want to enter a second time, tweet about the contest and let me know you've done that in a separate comment. The giveaway ends at midnight, EDT, on Saturday, June 21, and I'll select a winner by random number on June 22. The contest is open to residents of Canada and the United States.

Although I received a copy of this cookbook to review it, all the opinions I've expressed are my own.

Cornbread Panzanella with Ranch Dressing
(adapted from Third Thursday Community Potluck Cookbook by Nancy Vienneau)

1. Cornbread Croutons

1 1/2 cups cornmeal
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 Tbsp sugar
1 tsp salt
2 tsp baking powder
2 large eggs
1/2 cup butter, melted
1 cup milk

2. Ranch Dressing

1/2 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup mayonnaise
2 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
2 green onions, chopped finely (white and green parts)
1 Tbsp chopped fresh flat leaf parsley
1/4 tsp salt
pinch black pepper

3. Salad

4 large peppers (I used two red and two orange)
1 cup cubed zucchini (one medium)
1/4 cup chopped red onion
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
salt to taste
Cornbread Croutons
Ranch Dressing

For the croutons: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9 x 13 inch baking dish and line with parchment paper. In a large bowl, whisk together the cornmeal, flour, sugar, salt and baking powder. In a small dish, whisk together the eggs, melted butter and milk, then add to the dry ingredients. Stir to combine but do not overmix. Pour in the baking dish and bake until golden brown, about 20 minutes. Allow to cool. Cut into cubes and spread on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper. Toast in a preheated 350 degree oven for 15 minutes, tossing twice during cooking to ensure even browning.

For the Ranch Dressing, combine buttermilk, mayonnaise, lemon juice, green onions, parsley, salt and pepper. Whisk until smooth and creamy. Taste for seasonings and adjust. (This recipe gives more than enough for the salad. Leftover dressing will keep refrigerated for a week.)

Roast the peppers (see instructions here).

Cut peppers into bite-sized chunks. Place in a large bowl with zucchini, onion, basil, salt and pepper. Add 2 cups of cornbread croutons. Pour Ranch Dressing over the croutons and toss well. Serve immediately.

Thursday's Child: Carnegie Deli, New York City

Thursday, June 12, 2014
The first time Andrew and I travelled to New York, it was with our dear friends, Colleen and Garth Jay. We have many great memories from that trip, including Garth's attempt to win a disagreement with a New York taxi driver. (He didn't.) But one of the longest-lasting memories was of our breakfast at the Carnegie Deli.

I was four months pregnant with my oldest daughter at the time, and it was a great pregnancy. In fact, the only time I experienced morning sickness during the whole nine months was at the Carnegie Deli. I'm not sure what set it off - it certainly wasn't the food, for it hadn't even arrived. Perhaps it was the sight of Garth attempting to win a disagreement with the waitress. (He didn't.) I believe he was in the midst of trying to substitute French fries for hash browns when I felt the sudden urge to visit the ladies' room. Despite my sickness, I had fond memories of the deli with its celebrity photos lining the walls and enormous plates of food.

What a pleasure it was to return to New York over Christmas, and take the young lady who had visited in utero, along with her sister. We waited in line in the rain to get a table for a late lunch after seeing the Rockettes Christmas show. Celebrity photos still lined the walls, and the food was still abundant. People may grow up, but some things - like the Carnegie Deli - never change.

Black Bean Burger Quesadillas

Sunday, June 8, 2014
"Max stepped into his private boat and waved goodbye and sailed back over a year and in and out of weeks and through a day and into the night of his very own room where he found his supper waiting for him - and it was still hot."

- from Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak

What better way is there to show your love than by serving a hot supper? Especially if that hot supper is  something as delicious, and as healthy, as these black bean burger quesadillas. The combination of black beans and quinoa makes these the best veggie burgers I've ever eaten, and turning them into quesadillas makes a meal that's one of my favourite leftover ideas ever.

Black Bean Burger Quesadillas

(adapted from  Bake Your Day


2 tsp olive oil
1/4 cup white onion, chopped
1/4 cup red pepper, chopped
1/2 tsp ground cumin
pinch salt
2 leftover cooked Black Bean Burgers (note: you can use uncooked burgers instead, but crumble them and cook with the onion mixture)
4 large tortillas
1 cup shredded mozzarella or cheddar cheese, divided
Salsa (to serve)


Heat the oil in a medium frying pan.  Add the onion, bell pepper, cumin, and salt, and saute for about 6 minutes, until the onion and pepper are tender.  Add the leftover black bean burgers and break them up to resemble ground “meat”.  Cook until warmed through.  Remove from pan.

Spread one quarter of the black bean mixture over the tortilla, then sprinkle 1/4 cup of the cheese on top.  Fold the top of the tortilla over.  Repeat with remaining tortillas.  Cook for 3 minutes over medium heat until the outside is nicely browned and the cheese begins to melt.  Flip and continue to cook until the other side has browned. 

Serve warm with salsa.

Thursday's Child: Sleeping in a Cave, Cappadocia, Turkey

Thursday, June 5, 2014

We've stayed in some memorable hotels, but one of our most unique accommodations was a cave - that is, a cave hotel. Sacred House in Cappadocia, Turkey was carved from the side of a rock, with good reason. There is historical precedent for cave dwellings in this part of the country.

Cappadocia, located in central Turkey, was a frequent target of foreign armies. The Lydians, the Persians, the Greeks and the Romans were just some of the conquering nations. Because the region was so often under siege, and because the early Christians in the area were subject to persecution, Cappadocians soon learned that the safest place to hide was in a warren of caves, where houses, churches and public spaces were all cut out of the rock. Elaborate defences were constructed to allow these cave dwellers to counterattack their aggressors.

Our stay in a cave hotel was a little more comfortable. Although it was unseasonably cool when we visited, our cave lodgings were above the ground, and in a setting that was full of light. The courtyard was framed by medieval art and sculptures, and a gentle snowfall christened it with a fanciful quality. We might have been living in a legend, so ethereal were our surroundings.

Most of the rooms were accessed off the central courtyard and had names that stirred our imaginations. We stayed in "Anka's Lair" (Anka is the Turkish word for phoenix) and the "Old Chapel"; other choices included "Byzantium Treasury" and "Fairies Nest."

One of our best memories of the trip was at bedtime, when I joined the girls in their room and read a chapter from one of their favourite books, Fablehaven. The mythical creatures and fantastic adventures in the book suited the Cappadocian landscape perfectly.

Rock-hewn walls and fabulous bathtubs don't have to be mutually exclusive:


Sunday, June 1, 2014

Andrew and I are celebrating our 23rd wedding anniversary today, and went out to dinner last night. Andrew took the selfie above to commemorate the occasion. He did a little better last night than on Mother's Day, when he was trying to figure out his new camera phone. Instead of taking a photo, he took a video - shot sideways - with him saying "I'm pretty sure that one worked out."

When you've been married for twenty-three years, it's important not to get into a rut. And it's important not to let yourself get into a cooking rut, either. Keeping a blog since 2010 has encouraged me to try new recipes, from new cookbooks, and has helped me stay out of that rut. Fast, Fresh and Green, by Susie Middleton, is one of my favourites. It has a great selection of wonderful ways to serve vegetables, that just might make your side dish the star of your meal. Andrew absolutely loves these mushrooms, and I do too. I'll be serving them tonight, for our anniversary dinner at home.

Mahogany Mushrooms

1 Tbsp soy sauce
1 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
2 tsp dark brown sugar
2 tsp ketchup
1/2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1 Tbsp water

1 Tbsp unsalted butter (first amount)
2 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 pound cremini mushrooms (quartered if large, halved if small)
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1 Tbsp butter (second amount)
2 tsp minced fresh garlic

In a small bowl, whisk together the soy sauce, lemon juice, brown sugar, ketchup, Worcestershire sauce and water.  Set the bowl near the stove.  Put a shallow serving dish near the stove as well.

In a 10 inch straight-sided sauté pan, heat 1 Tbsp of the butter with the olive oil over medium-high heat.  When the butter has melted, add the mushrooms and salt, stir right away, and continue stirring until the mushrooms have absorbed all of the fat.

Let the mushrooms sit and cook for two minutes, then stir once.  Don’t worry, the pan may look crowded and dry, but keep the heat up at medium-high.  Let it sit and cook, stirring infrequently (they will squeak when you stir them), until the mushrooms are shrunken, glistening, and some parts have developed a deep orange-brown colour, about 10 minutes.  (The bottom of the pan will be brown.)

Turn the heat down to low, and add the garlic and remaining 1 Tbsp butter.  Stir and cook until the butter is melted and the garlic is fragrant, about 30 seconds.  Whisk the soy sauce mixture again and very carefully add it to the pan.  You’ll need to scrape out the brown sugar, but don’t stand directly over the pan as there will be sputtering.  Stir and cook just until the liquid thickens slightly and coats the mushrooms, 15 to 20 seconds more.  Quickly transfer the mushrooms and all of the sauce to a serving dish. 

And this outtake shows maybe he doesn't have the camera entirely figured out yet:
Happy anniversary, Andrew!