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My blogger friend, David Crichton of Fine Dining at Home went all the way to the end of Master Chef UK, 2018! How COOL is THAT? I have to admit, I’m always a little envious of people who actually want to be in front of the camera, I always shy away from it. You may recall Dave and I met in 2016, in London and again in 2017, when he captained a Thomas Cook airplane to Toronto and JT and I were able to reciprocate his hospitality. Dave is so easy to get along with, that we fell right back into conversation as if no time had passed. When we got together, he mentioned that he was thinking of applying for Master Chef UK, Season 14. If anyone can do it, it would be Dave.Fine Dining at Home is a blog about upscale restaurant food you can serve in your own home. Dave makes the recipes easy to follow and uses unusual ingredients. JT and I were in Arizona when his episodes aired and they were addictive! We watched each show intently, fingers crossed that he would make the next round. Judges Gregg Wallace and John Torode never had a bad thing to say about Dave’s food. It was awesome. According to Wikipedia, more than 20,000 people applied to audition for the series in 2010 (45,000 THIS YEAR) and they whittle it down to 56! Can you imagine how stressful that would be? Dave kindly let me ask him a few questions about his experience and I thought you might enjoy it.

What is the process to become a contestant?
Dave: Quite straightforward. Fill in the online form. Then a telephone interview, if you’re successful with that you’re asked to take some food in and
more questions. I guess after this it’s the luck of the gods that get you to the final 56.
Guinea fowl, Masterchef UK

Guinea fowl, French boned leg stuffed with brioche and rosemary and sweetcorn tempura

Were John and Gregg the judges in the interview process?
Dave: Invention tests are exactly that. No preparation, just cook. After this, you are given a little warning of a theme for the next round. This gets especially more difficult as the competition goes on and general life eats up your time. John and Gregg decide everything. They are the only two people you need to impress/influence.
How much time did you have before you had to appear on the show? How did you determine the dishes you would cook for the show? How many times did you practice each one?
Dave: I had about six weeks warning before my first heat. It was quite easy to determine what I’d cook. Just chose my favourite dishes that really say this is me on a plate. It then just became a matter of timings. Each dish would be only be tweaked to fit into the timescale. The hardest dish to practice for was actually my dessert in the final. It was a pistachio/Tonka bean panna cotta with citrus meringue, macerated berries and a basil gel. I had to invent my own way of making the gel. Trying to keep it green is very difficult. This probably took the best part of a day when I only had two to play with for the final three dishes.
Careless Whisper

Careless Wispa. We were given the topic of an idol. This was George Michael. It’s a 70% dark chocolate shell with salted butter caramel, dark chocolate mousse, balsamic vinegar and Greek Yoghurt ice cream

Did MC UK provide all of the ingredients for each dish? And were you able to put in an order for special ingredients? Were you limited by budget?
Dave: MC UK provide all the ingredients, which generally were amazing. There was no budget, but I chose to cook cheap food that everyone has access to and can relate to. I thought the judges can then appreciate the skill of the cook more. I blew the budget in the final though, one truffle for two portions of the starter!

This is the infamous Apple Crumble Mille Feuille that made a John cry!

How much time were you given with each brief before the show taping? Did you get the briefs in advance, all at once? What was the taping schedule, was it all at once or once every couple of days?
Dave: The whole show runs on a rolling schedule. Everything is drip fed to you. Themes for the next rounds etc. It was all generally filmed Monday-Friday.
It’s always a challenge to cook in someone else’s kitchen, did you get a chance to review the layout and equipment before taping the show or was it baptism by fire?
Dave: The first round really is a baptism of fire. You go in there completely blind. No one has any idea where the equipment is or what there is. You all just have to think on your feet. A great leveler.
One thing we kept commenting on was your controlled composure throughout the series, do you feel that your experience in being a commercial pilot helped? What were some of the techniques that you used to help control stress?
Dave: I certainly think my job helped. Panicking doesn’t solve anything. Problems will always occur, the sooner you can think straight to solve them, the better your chances of success. I was nervous, but I thought if I’m nervous how is everyone feeling? I just took it as if I was fighter, show no weakness. One of the best quotes I’ve ever heard was from Conor MacGregor(UFC fighter)
“Winners concentrate on winning, losers concentrate on winners” 
I believed in myself and didn’t worry about what anyone else was doing. Not in a cocky way, but why stress about something you have no control over.
Name two things that you learned from the Michelin Star chefs that you did not know before. Will we see them incorporated in dishes on the blog?
Dave: The Michelin star chefs were the highlight of the show for me. Just watching the way they work, learning their ethos quickly rubs off on you. From Tommy I finally learnt the secret to perfect ice cream and making the rocher shape. It’s all in the texture! From Ashley Palmer-Watts I learnt so many things, but mainly just to take the attitude of every ingredient and “what can I do to make it taste great?”
Do you know what you will do with your celebrity?
Dave: I wouldn’t say I have much celebrity, but I want to do a pop up once/twice a month so everyone can come and eat my food. I’d also like to explore the private dining and corporate dining world. It all fits in better with my flying. I’d also like to write a book based on my website. Just enough to keep me out of trouble.
Thank you so much for this lovely interview. JT and I are so happy for your success. I hope one day to sample your tasty dishes and not just drool over them on the computer! Hope to see you soon.
If you want to watch Dave in action, some kind soul posted the series on YouTube, Dave’s part starts at Episode 13 and goes all the way to Episode 25.
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ChoppedLogoLast summer I received a most welcome email from my dear blogger friend, Lorraine Elliot of the famed Not Quite Nigella blog. She was coming to Canada as a guest of the Canadian Tourism Commission and Tourism Yukon and she wondered would I be available to meet if she could arrange a slight diversion to Toronto! I was absolutely thrilled! Of course, I wrote back, who wouldn’t want to meet with one of their blogger heroes? I kept having to pinch myself! No, really!

I suspect that there were many arrangements to make/and subsequently change with the Canadian Tourism Commission so that Lorraine could be in TO for a couple of days. They booked her solid so it was a bit whirl-wind, but Lorraine made sure we had at least a half a day and it was awesome! (You can read about Lorraine’s Toronto experience here, here, here, here, and here). I had asked Lorraine to email me her Toronto schedule so that I could a) make the most of her time, and b) choose something to do that wasn’t on the Tourism Commission’s itinerary. I wanted to show her something unique.

Lorraine_Eva

I’m not too good at taking selfies.

I am very fortunate to know or be acquainted personally with many culinary giants in Toronto, mostly through my past life as a Client Service Rep for a design firm that specializes in Food Packaging, but some because of my current vocation, so I got out my address book. I called Claudia Bianchi, a very close friend of a friend, and an accomplished chef, food stylist and producer of several Food Network Canada shows. I knew Claudia was in the midst of the taping of Season 3 of Chopped Canada and I wondered if there might be an opportunity for us to visit the set and even stay a bit to check out the taping. Claudia very generously put me in touch with Cary Mignault, the PR guy for Chopped Canada, Season 3. It was such an amazing experience, Cary was open and more than happy to make the set visit happen. And such perfect timing too, because as it turned out, the day we visited the set was the LAST DAY of taping the show! Can you believe our fortuitousness? Had Lorraine made arrangements for the day after, it simply could not have happened and I would have been up the creek without a paddle!

I picked Lorraine up at the hotel at 7:30 am and we drove across town to Leslieville where they were taping Chopped Canada, Season 3. As soon as she stepped into the car, we talked and talked and talked, it was as if we were long lost friends! I can attest that Lorraine is as lovely, kind and sweet in person as she is on Social Media. Cary met us in the parking lot and we entered the building. To say this is a huge production is an understatement, there is even an enormous refrigerator/prep room filled with full-size refrigerators! And the set is outstanding, sparkly and new, filled with the latest gadgets and appliances, it is a cook’s dream!

FridgeRoom

The Fridge and Prep room

Fridge_PrepRoom

The off set Prep area.

Claudia met us on set and took us for a little tour, this little slide show includes some of the photos sent to me by Cary. Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to chat with Claudia about the show, so here are some insights:

There are a total of ten judges who participate on the show, but there are only 3 seats actually on the show, the judges alternate depending on availability (read about the judges here). The judges are not just there to assess and evaluate the participants but their interaction also provide mentorship to each culinary participant. I enquired how the secret basket of ingredients are determined and Claudia said that she gets her inspiration from many places…it could be a trip to the market, a weekend at their cottage or perhaps her husband’s restaurant (Actinolite) or even some of the judges! And the ingredients need not be Canadian! I asked what ingredient was sourced from the furthest place, sadly she could not mention it as the show had not aired! As you can see from the slide show below, the on stage pantry is exceptionally stocked (here is a link to some great pantry photos (BTW, my friend the designer Kim Sewell, designed most of the labels because they were not permitted to have branded product on set!)).

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Hello everyone! I do hope you are enjoying the holidays. As you may have heard on the news Toronto was savagely hit with an ice storm last weekend and over half a million homes were left without power, some still don’t have power. I am very pleased to report that our power was only out for about  28 hours so it wasn’t that bad. We did have to rejig our Christmas plans as we were to host festivities on Christmas Day and not knowing how quickly the power would be restored we made arrangements to have it at JT’s sister’s place in Peterborough (the power company had indicated it may be 5 days!). My nephew Brian kindly offered us his apartment for warmth which was great because I had to prepare a few things to take for Christmas Eve’s dinner and Christmas Day dinner. It made me realize how fragile we are and how dependant we are on power, particularly in the winter. Fortunately, we didn’t lose food,  we put refrigerator things to keep cool outside and the freezer was cold enough and full enough to maintain the frosty temperature (thanks to Norma Garden to Wok, who kindly suggested to put buckets of ice into it if it wasn’t chuck full).
The house temperature fell to around 10°C  (50°F) so we turned the water off and put antifreeze in the traps and toilets. We didn’t have to do anything with our hot water rads, apparently they are good until the temperature falls below freezing for a couple of days. Of course, that’s just a wild guess and I am so glad we didn’t have to find out the hard way. Many of our dear friends reached out to us and offered a warm place to stay, which was incredibly generous, THANK YOU! We are indeed very lucky to be surrounded by such a wonderful group. Merry Christmas indeed.

As the holiday season continues and we are partying with gusto, I wanted to pass along a recipe I developed after Barb and I were introduced to a very novel hors d’œuvres at the KPMG Clara Hughes event in November. This hors d’œuvres was so unique and delicious I had wanted to try to recreate it for cocktails with Barb and her family on Christmas Eve, a tradition we’ve been enjoying for many years, but unfortunately we were one household of a 250,000 left without power for a few day after the ice storm last weekend so I put it off. It’s not complicated but it does require technique so you may wish to practice a bit before you serve it up at your party. You will need a slab of ice, easily made using a cookie sheet or roasting pan, or more authentically a good amount of freshly fallen, CLEAN snow. In the city, our snow is not very clean, so I opted for the slab of ice.

The sweet candied Maple Syrup provides a wonderful contrast to sharp cheese such as blue, extra old cheddar or even Parmesan (any double or triple cream cheeses will be too soft to do this with)..

Maple Cheese Popsicles

Serves 4-6

Ingredients:

  • 1 slab of ice (or shaved ice*), made using a cookie sheet or rectangular roasting pan (you will need to make this 2 days or more in advance). Add sprigs of Christmas tree trimmings and bright red cranberries for a festive feel. I lined a 10″ x 13″ x 2″ roasting pan with plastic wrap to help me lift the ice out of the pan.
  • An accurate candy thermometer.
  • 1/2 cup pure maple syrup (any colour will do, but we used Amber).
  • A variety of cheeses (such as blue, extra old cheddar or even Parmesan) cut into 1 cm x 2 (1/2 inch x 1 inch) rectangles.
  • tooth picks.

Directions:

Prepare everything in advance:

  1. Bring the cheese to room temperature, place one tooth pick into each and set the little soldiers aside.
  2. Prepare a lovely serving dish by lightly spraying it with non-stick spray. You will set the maple cheese popsicles onto this dish and if it’s not sprayed, the maple candy will stick to it (at least that was my experience).
  3. To keep the maple syrup from setting up as you prepare these delightful bites, fill a cake pan deep enough to hold boiling water about half way to three-quarter the way up the small sauce pan sides. Place it directly at your work station.
  4. Place a dish cloth at your work station and put the slab of ice on it (decorate the edges with Christmas tree clippings or add cranberries and greenery to the ice when you make it so that it’s very festive. You may remove the pan or leave the ice it in, it’s up to you).

Now you are ready to begin cooking the maple syrup:

  1. When all of your guests have arrived, put the maple syrup into a heavy bottomed very small sauce pan (mine was ~1 cup (250mL) volume) and insert the candy thermometer, cook on medium to medium-high heat until it reaches 240° F (116° C) which is about 8-10 minutes depending on how cold your maple syrup was to begin with. Watch the syrup carefully as once it hits 250° F (121° C) it will begin to crystallize and it will be ruined for this application, but you can use it in coffee or tea, so don’t discard.
  2. When the maple syrup has reached  240° F (116° C), remove it immediately from the heat and place the sauce pan into the bath with the boiling water.
  3. Using a dry spoon which holds about 1 tsp, drizzle the maple syrup in a lace-like rectangular pattern on the ice slab long enough to roll the cheese in once. Almost immediately after you finish drizzling, using one of the prepared cheese bites on a tooth pick, begin at one end and roll up the maple candy around the cheese. Either hand it to a guest or place it on the prepared serving platter.
  4. Repeat until you have used up all of the cheese. If your kitchen is chilly, you may wish to replace the boiling water bath about half way through so that the syrup doesn’t set up.

These photos were from the second trial, the first trial didn’t work out!

MapleCheesePopsicles_1666

Although these aren’t as lacy as I would have liked, they did turn out better than I expected.

MapleCheesePopsicles_1668

It takes a bit of practice to get the technique right.

MapleCheesePopsicles_1667

The maple candy starts to melt, that’s why it’s good to spray your serving dish with non-stick spray. I made these about 30 minutes ahead and stored them in the fridge and they still melted a bit.

Notes:

  • If you forgot to make your slab of ice, you can take  about 10 ice cubes and in a good strong blender or food processor, pulse until you achieve a reasonable amount of shaved ice without big bits. The shaved ice will melt faster therefore it is a good idea to have more ice on hand to refill the shaved ice container. You will need to continue to work so have your kitchen helper shave more ice, or prepare it in advance and store it in the freezer on another cookie sheet or flat platter.
  • I prefer blue cheese as the pairing with the sweet maple syrup, but some people don’t like blue, so have some cheddar on hand.
  • Fry up some thick cut bacon that is cut into 1 cm x 2 (1/2 inch x 1 inch) rectangles and wrap the maple around it as an alternative option.

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A very popular Mexican restaurant opened a second location just north of our hood in The Junction, Playa Cabana Cantina. We were elated because the original location is always so busy they regularly have one hour line ups outside, rain or shine. About a month ago a friend made reservations and they still had to wait an hour for their table! I don’t do lines (queues), period. If I can’t get a reservation and timely seating, I just can’t be bothered to go, no matter how delicious the food claims to be. There are too many really good restaurants in Toronto to waste time standing in line!

Cabana Cantina Junction_4254

The eclectic retro décor really suits the place.

When Playa Cabana Cantina opened in The Junction we were very happy to have a good Mexican restaurant so close to home. We’ve eaten there twice for lunch/brunch both times and I am very happy to report an excellent review BOTH times! We’ve tried going back for dinner but that’s another story.

Our first lunch we each ordered our own meal, and we knew that future visits would entail sharing, the portions are HUGE. JT had a Burrito with Guajillo-chipotle marinated free range chicken grilled over coals with fresh mango salsa which was wrapped with melted Oaxacan cheese, rice, and beans, they topped it with fresh guacamole, pico de gallo, crema, and it sat in two very colourful sauces: green tomatillo sauce and red tomato sauce $13. JT couldn’t say enough good things about it; I had a taste and it was a flavour explosion in my mouth. The red tomato sauce was delicious, the tomatillo was a bit tasteless, but I’ve not had tomatillo sauce before so maybe it is supposed to be mild. Again, there is enough food on the platter to share between two people and I guarantee you will not leave hungry. I ordered a smaller order of three Tacos de Chori-Queso; the tacos were homemade corn and water tacos filled with homemade Mexican Chorizo wrapped with Oaxacan cheese $14. Although my selection was delicious, it was a bad choice for me because the tacos were actually deep fried and the Chorizo was a bit greasy; not withstanding, it was still quite delicious, but I prefer healthier options, particularly when I’m not sharing.

On our second visit we smartened up and shared one of our favourite brunchy plates: Heuvos Rancheros and we were not disappointed. Made with three eggs, Spanish and Mexican Chorizo, rice with corn, black beans, flour tortilla, guacamole, sour cream and queso. The eggs could have been a bit more cooked (the whites were pretty runny) but the yolks were perfect. We divided the plate one third-two thirds (the larger one for JT) and it was perfect. The Chorizo was plentiful and very flavourful and it wasn’t greasy like my first taco experience; it also spiced up the plate with a bit of heat perfectly.

Service was good and both times the food came quickly, but the second time we had to ask for water fill ups. The noise level during Brunch is relatively quiet but another table (bit older than we are) asked them to reduce the volume for the music (we chose a table as far from the hanging speakers as possible). I suspect that it’s likely much more animated during the dinner hours.

Cabana Cantina Junction Huevos Rancheros_4230

Three eggs, chunks of chorizo, a flour tortilla, black beans, guacamole, sour cream, rice and corn.

Cabana Cantina Junction Huevos Rancheros_4254

We shared the Huevos Rancheros the second visit and boy were we glad we did, it was enough food for both of us.

One Thursday night, we decided to try Playa Cabana Cantina in our neighbourhood, but we knew we were playing with fire, so we called first. The gentleman said they were fully booked with reservations but there is ALWAYS seating at the bar; don’t worry, I’ll find you a seat, he said. We do bars! In fact, I love sitting at the bar because you can often get to know the bar tender and it’s always a pleasant conversation. Sadly this was not to happen that Thursday night. About 15 minutes after we called we arrived at the restaurant and guess what? No room, not one seat, not even at the bar. Needless to say we were rather annoyed and likely won’t be going back for a while (they shouldn’t have made promises they knew they couldn’t keep), not that they will miss our business because they seem to be booked every night even without us! Too bad, I liked their food.

Playa Cabana Cantina
2883 Dundas St. W, Toronto, ON
647-352-7767

Monday Closed
Tuesday 5pm – 12am
Wednesday 5pm – 12am
Thursday 5pm – 2am
Friday 5pm – 2am
Saturday 5pm – 2am
Sunday 5pm – 12am

Overall rating of The Junction Playa Cabana Cantina (in my opinion): Decor 4/5, service 3.5/5, food 4/5, Value 4/5, Noise: 4/5 (1 being very noisy, and 5 being very quiet).

Disclaimer: We purchased our meals for full price and my opinions just that, my opinions.

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