Reminiscing over Italy and the sandwich that came of it.

If you were to rewind ten years back you would find me eagerly stepping off a boat on a rainy April morning onto Italian soil. Six weeks of backpacking in South East Asia had left me ravenous for some good, crusty bread and I knew I wouldn’t have to look far. An apparent dependency on all things yeasty had surfaced amidst the many bowls of perfect Pad Thai and sublime Nasi Goreng, and despite my love of those flavours, I couldn’t help but dream about the focaccia and calzone of ‘the Boot’.

I had arrived in Brindisi via a flight to Turkey and a boat from Greece and to me, this port town had it all going on. No, there was no Ponte Vecchio or Trevi Fountain, but I quickly found all I needed- a bakery.
It had just opened it doors for the day and the shelves were stacked high with the most knee-weakening array of Italian specialties I could have ever hoped to see. This small-town Canadian girl nearly swooned at the perfectly dimpled Focaccette al Rosmarino, fruit and nut studded Cantucci and Biscotti, rustic peasant Pagnotta and perfect Grissini.

I don’t remember all that I purchased, but it was way more than I could possibly eat for breakfast. Standing at a small bar, I washed everything down with a perfect café and the gruff yet efficient clerk wrapped up the leftovers in brown paper and string for me, rations for the long train ride to Roma.
The rain soaked me as I walked the nearly deserted streets, but I barely noticed. My belly was happy and so was I.

I was to stumble upon a market a little later in the day and again satiate my bread-lust with a roasted vegetable-laden focaccia and a sausage-stuffed panini–both of which today’s immense sandwich reminded me of.
I guess that is why we took this little trip back in time; flavors have a strong tendency to transport one back to a certain spot, no matter how many years have passed. How amazing that memory fails, but taste buds do not!

I finished my gastronomical feasting for the day with a lemon gelato and another coffee before heading to the station to catch my train. Brindisi had been good to me and the rest of Italy awaited.

Ciao Brindisi Panini
serves 2

1 Italian sausage, grilled, sliced lengthwise
2 slices slab bacon, cooked, or Pancetta
4 slices Provolone
1 red pepper, quartered and seeded
1 zucchini, sliced lengthwise into four
4 thin slices of lemon
1/4 red onion, sliced into 4 wedges
olive oil
Two crusty bread rolls, Ciabatta or ‘petit pain’

Preheat grill.
Combine red pepper, zucchini, lemon and red onion in a bowl with a generous splash of olive oil and toss to coat. Season with salt and grill everything until soft and cooked. The lemons will only take a few seconds on either side.
Reduce the heat of the grill to low.
Slice buns in half, brush generously with olive oil and grill slightly. Pile all ingredients onto the bottom two buns and place the top bun on the pile. Yep, it will look gigantic!
Grill in a panini press until cheese is melted OR, if you are like me and don’t have a panini press, simply wrap a brick with tinfoil and place it on top of the two sandwiches on the BBQ. You will need to flip the panini once if you are doing this.

Enjoy possibly the best sandwich you have ever had.

DIY: Bagel Tutorial and More History.

How does working from 5AM ’till 10PM, seven days a week, in a remote location, for an entire summer sound? Ten years ago to me, it sounded like a pretty good plan…

Here’s a bit more history for you.

Flashback to 1999 in Northern British Columbia. I’m 19, no serious plans for the summer except slinging food in the mediocre bistro where I am presently employed, wishing to get out of my small town and see some of the world.
I get a phone call from George (same George as in this post but he had since moved to Vancouver) and he has a proposal.

“How would you like to be my sous-chef at a fly-in fishing resort on the BC coast for the summer? Financially, it’s very attractive.”

“What’s the catch?” I ask.

“Well, let’s see, the workload is extremely heavy, there is no contact with the outside world except snail mail once in a while, and once you’re in, that’s it, you can’t change your mind.”

“Hmm, sounds like fun.” I say. “I can be ready in a few weeks”.

And that’s how I found myself on a small floating fishing lodge in a quiet inlet on the Pacific Ocean, cooking three square meals a day for 35 people, and having some of the best adventures of my teenage years. Although the working hours were long and the nights very short, the benefits almost balanced out the hardships: whale watching, crabbing and fishing, sandy beaches and the sheer beauty of British Columbia’s rugged coastline in my backyard.

Life there revolved around one thing: the King Salmon. Clients didn’t pay the big bucks to fly in on a little Otter float plane just to taste my cooking (although luckily for them, it was a big bonus) but for the thrill of reeling in one of these beautiful fish. While they took home anything they caught, we always had plenty of fresh-caught salmon on hand for eating that the staff reeled in. George constructed a smoker and smoked huge fillets of the scarlet fish while I baked the best thing to complement smoked salmon: bagels.

When the guests came in for lunch at 11:30, ravenous from a morning’s work in the fresh sea air, they were treated to a decadent lunch of piping hot bagels, home-smoked salmon and the fixings.
No wonder the staff said that that summer had the best food they had ever experienced–probably no one else put the love into their cooking that George and I did, and everyone knows that’s what makes the difference!
I made enough money in that eleven week job posting to take the next half-year off and travel and that’s just what I did. I bought my first camera-a Pentax- and a one way ticket to….but wait, that is another chapter entirely and not for this post.

My family has been making these bagels for as long as I can remember and to me they are the very best I have ever tasted. While I know they might not be the definition of ‘the perfect bagel’, to me they are just that, and a whole lot more because I grew up eating them. My boys already love them, so things are going to stay this way for at least another generation.

Aimée’s Family Bagel Recipe

(adapted from The Breads of France by Bernard Clayton Jr.)
Makes 16 large bagels

3 Cups warm water

4 Tbsps yeast

1/4 cup Sugar

2 Tbsps Salt

7 Cups All-Purpose Flour (approx)

Toppings to taste:
diced onions, poppy, sesame or caraway seeds, etc…

Boiling Water:
2 quarts water

1 Tbsp sugar

1 Egg white
1 Tbsp water

Coarse salt

In a mixing bowl, pour water and yeast. Stir to dissolve, and leave for 2-3 minutes until yeast is creamy. Stir in sugar and salt. Add 4 cups of flour, and beat at low speed for 1 minute, then turn to high for 3 minutes. Stop mixer and add balance of flour. Stir with a wooden spoon to make a thick batter. When it becomes difficult to stir, remove from bowl and work with your hands on the counter. Knead dough for about 8 minutes. Dough should be firm – add more flour if sticky.

Return dough to clean, greased bowl. Cover it tightly with plastic film and allow to rise for 1 hour.
During the rising period, prepare water in a large 4-1/2 litre pot. Bring to a boil, and add sugar (the sugar will give the bagels a nice sheen when the come out of the water). Cover and leave simmer on low. Grease 2 baking sheets with oil and sprinkle generously with cornmeal. Whisk together water and egg white for glaze and set aside. Prepare toppings of choice and reserve.
Preheat oven to 450F

Turn dough onto work surface and punch down.
With a sharp knife, divide the dough into 16 equal pieces. Shape each piece into a ball as shown on video above. Allow to rest for 3-4 minutes.

With your thumb, press deep into the cente
r of the ball, and tear open a hole with the fingers. Watch the video above for a complete demonstration on the shaping. Place formed bagels together on the work surface, cover with a towel and leave until dough is slightly raised – about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, bring your water to a low boil. Gently lift bagels, one at a time, and lower into the hot water. Do not do more than 2 or 3 at a time. Cook for about 30 seconds, then flip them over in the water using a slotted spoon, and cook for another 15 seconds. Lift out with the slotted spoon, and place on your baking sheet. Repeat with all the bagels. Brush with egg glaze and dress them up with the topping of your choice and a sprinkling of coarse salt before popping them in the oven.

Bake for about 30 minutes, rotating the pans halfway through. Keep an eye on them so that the bottoms don’t burn. Remove from oven, cool on a rack and enjoy!

These bagels freeze beautifully and toast up well for a perfect breakfast.

Orange Madeleines and a Holiday Relapse Recap

I seem to be having a hard time saying goodbye to the holiday season and here we are almost two weeks into January. Valentine’s decorations are up in store fronts and my neighbor tossed her Christmas tree a long time ago (like on Boxing Day); everyone seems to be moving on except moi.

I’m not a sentimentalist, it’s not like I am hanging onto decorations or playing carols over and over (dear me, I’ve had quite enough of those thank you), it’s more of that relaxed, unmotivated feeling that comes from no real schedule to speak of and too many late nights.
Quite honestly, I blame the cozy zen mornings I’ve been having with the little ones, snowed in with a real Winter Wonderland outside, reading the new books they got for Christmas and munching on the remains of the stolen and panettone. I don’t have to head back to school like some of my friends and I have no job to report to at 9AM that will shake me out of my White Christmas reverie, so what’s to prevent me from extending the holiday cheer a little longer?

One such relaxed morning was spent looking back at the photos from the past month and in doing so I realized I had a few food related shots that I could potentially share. A photo recap of sorts–or a relapse back into winter holidays, call it what you like.
So indulge me this one last jingle and then I promise I’ll eat the remaining lonely gingerbread man left in the freezer and move on with my life.

We enjoyed these madeleines fresh out of the oven on Christmas morning. The batter is a cinch to whip up the night before and all you have to do in the morning is bake them while you are brewing the coffee.

Orange Madeleines Makes 2 dozen
Adapted from Martha Stewart’s Baking Handbook

1/2 cup unsalted butter, plus more for pan
3/4 cup all-purpose flour, plus more for pans

1/2 cup ground almonds

1/2 cup plus 2 T sugar

2 Tablespoons finely grated orange zest

1 vanilla bean, halved & scraped

3 large eggs

1/2 teaspoon salt

In a small saucepan, melt the butter over medium-low heat. Set aside to cool. In a large bowl, whisk together flour, ground almonds, and sugar; set aside. Add the orange zest to the cooled butter, stir to combine.
In a large bowl, combine the eggs, vanilla bean seeds and salt and mix until frothy. Whisk in reserved flour mixture to combine. With a whisk, fold in the butter mixture. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate until chilled, at least 2 hours or overnight.

Preheat the oven to 350F. Butter two 12-mould madeleine pans, and dust with flour. With two small spoons, spoon batter into moulds, filling about halfway. Bake, rotating pans if needed, until the edges are a light brown and tops spring back gently when pressed, 12-14 minutes.

Immediately invert madeleines onto a wire rack to cool. Serve warm.

Happy Birthday to UtHC and a Giveaway Present for You!

Today is our second birthday here at Under the High Chair and I am celebrating by giving you a present! Find out at the end of the post how you can win this world-class spice kit for your own cooking pleasure!

Today we are celebrating two years of blogging! Hip hip hooray! Go ahead, give us a pat on the back. I’m so excited about this post! Don’t go anywhere!

I was thinking last night about how I wanted to sum up this past year of blogging. I was imagining how I would go on and on about how busy the year was, how I wasn’t sure how we would get over the hump (sorry, bad pun) of having a baby and how that would affect my blogging time, but shucks, who wants to read about all that?The bottom line is: I’m still here and more importantly, so are you!

I want to say a big ‘thank you’ to my readers, both those of you who have been with me since day one and the new arrivals; you guys are the best!

There are two things I would like to do for you to show my appreciation, one is a virtual dinner party that you are all invited to (also to showcase a few dishes from this past year) and second, a fantastic giveaway that I intend to ship anywhere in the world (or deliver in person if the lucky winner is local)!! So, hurry, cancel whatever you were doing tonight, and get over here!

First up: Dinner Party

I’ve said before, picking a favorite dish or post on Under the High Chair is like being asked who I love more, Noah or Mateo: completely impossible to answer. So don’t consider these dishes to be my final word on my ultimate best dish, but more like recipes I can’t get enough of, my fall-back dishes for entertaining and food that is just so good you forget all your troubles.

So come on in and kick your shoes off!

I would love to wake up your palate with my most seductive amuse bouche, Foie Gras Sushi with Pears and Ice Cider Reduction. Enjoy it while you are curled up on the sofa or perched on my piano bench; it’s a perfect way to start the evening.
A glass of chilled ice cider goes with it and a few napkins; it’s pretty messy and meant to be eaten in two big bites. No nibbling here! It’s important to get all the components – nori, rice, wasabi, pear, seared foie gras and ice cider reduction – in your mouth at the same time. Cheers!

Leave your glass at the sink and please take a place at the table!
If you found the sushi very rich, you were absolutely right, but now here is a crisp, fresh appetizer with enough acidity to make your taste buds pucker: Winter Salad of Russet Apple, Pomegranate and Toasted Pecans with a Picked Shallot and Apple Cider Vinaigrette. Here’s a reminder that fall is just around the corner!
Russet apples happen to be my favorite, but any kind of apple would be lovely in this salad. Cipollini onions are also great instead of shallots, thinly sliced into pretty half moon wedges.

Excuse me for a moment, while I take this focaccia out of the oven. It’s best served piping hot, and so easy to make, I whipped it up during the boys’ nap time so we could enjoy it with our pasta.
Yeah, there’s a story to go along with it about how I got started in professional cooking over ten years ago.
What? You can’t believe I had time to make bread? For you, anything!

As a rule I don’t usually make pasta for guests–it’s so weekday dinner, but, mama mia, this recipe for Seafood Creole Tagliatelle is unlike any pasta you have ever tasted. I should have been grilling all summer long, but instead I found myself, night after night, grinding spices, peeling shrimp and stirring together this decadent dish. Many guests partook of it at my table, and although I tried every time to make extra so we could have leftovers, there was never one noodle left. Even my not-so-adventurous father-in-law (love ya, B!) had third helpings and when offered my famous Caesar salad, said “No thanks, I’m just going to eat pasta until I explode.”
‘Nuff said. Enjoy!

Well, I hope you still have some room left. Let me just warm up my espresso machine. Since this is a virtual dinner party anyway, we’ll pretend I have that $6000 Jura X9 I was drooling over the other day at my fave kitchen store. Espresso or chai latte? The latter would go better with our dessert.
I love pairing spices with chocolate, and this decadent Chocolate Chai Cheesecake is a perfect example. Not a very glamorous dessert (cheesecakes always seem kind of stodgy to me) but you’ll be won over with the first bite.

You can undo the button on your jeans if you have to, I won’t tell anyone; I know, I’m stuffed too!
Don’t worry about the dishes, I never let my guests do them. Shoo.

Thanks for joining me for this birthday dinner! Cheers!

And now for the giveaway!

I wanted to do this for my birthday, but for one reason or another, it didn’t happen; fortunately this is the perfect opportunity to make your day and introduce you to some products from my friend, Philippe de Vienne. I’ve talked about him enough around here so he really doesn’t need an introduction.
Longtime staples in my kitchen– and in professional gourmet kitchens around town–this spice kit will leave you begging for more! This little package contains staples like cumin and cardamom, but also includes some more exotic spices such as long pepper, which is a stunning addition to this Milk Chocolate Pudding— but there I go again with my chocolate and spice fad.

To win this “Kitchen 101-Base Spices” starter kit all you have to do is leave a comment between today, Saturday, September 6 and Saturday, September 13.
I will do a random draw of your names and notify the winner here on Sunday. As I said before, I’ll ship anywhere in the world, and if the lucky winner is local, I will deliver it in person if you wish.
Please no anonymous comments, that’s so boring. Good luck!

Ed Note: If you missed the first year of Under the High Chair, this post sums it up for you in a nutshell. There’s even a fancy-shmancy slide show for your viewing pleasure!

Mama’s Meatballs and One Night with Rocco

Most people know Rocco DiSpirito as the cute but slightly self-centered chef from the 2005 reality show “The Restaurant”, or maybe you read about him in a cooking magazine or saw his pretty face on a talk show (he’s also recently popped up as a guest judge on Top Chef).
Part chef, part business man, he certainly has made a name for himself, but his character has earned quite a reputation as well; unfortunately, it’ s not as pretty as his face.
I experienced this first hand back in 2002 when I had had the ‘pleasure’ of working with Rocco. This was long before his reality show aired, when he was executive chef at New York City’s Union Pacific. I was working as a line cook at one of Montreal’s top restaurants and we hosted Rocco as a guest celebrity chef for two nights. The place was packed out as Montreal gourmets came to sample a 7-course tasting menu featuring Rocco’s Union Pacific food and to meet the young star. I’m sure he was smooth as butter in the dining room, but my kitchen experience was rather different.
Rocco’s presence in the kitchen was wildly irregular. Half of the time he chatted and laughed into his cell phone, barely glancing at plates as they went out, and the rest of the time he played the roll of a typical tyrannical Head Chef, snapping at people and letting us know he was far, far superior.
I kept my head down and worked my butt off, but it was hard not to smile to myself at his silly get-up: carefully tousled hair, snug designer jeans, pinstriped button down shirt and a chef’s jacket that looked more like an after thought. I guess it was fitting, as the only work he did all night was shave a few black truffles onto his osso bucco. I was plating two of his starters that night: Maine scallops in tomato water and some sort of nasty lobster in a Reisling jelly. He had a few choice words for my plating style, sneering at me with such mockery it took my breath away. His sarcasm was sharp and his arrogance unmistakable. Classy.
After the service was over, my ever-hospitable and gracious boss brought a few bottles of Dom Perignon into the kitchen and Rocco stole the show by dramatically slicing the tops off the bottles with a cleaver and flamboyantly filling the glasses as if he was hosting his own party. He was all smiles now, running his fingers through his hair and flirting with the girls. A few of the staff were having him sign that evenings’ menu as a keepsake, but a few of us hung back, not wishing to stroke his massive ego further and really not caring if we got his autograph or not. Eventually he approached us. He lifted himself up onto my work station, and to my chagrin, stretched out full length on the stainless steel. He propped his head up on his hand, crossed his legs and said sweetly,
“Don’t you want my autograph, too?” Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up.
Google “Rocco’s meatballs” and you will get a whopping 32, 700 hits . He’s taken his mama’s recipe and turned it into an empire. People raved over them on his reality show and now Dull Normals like us can order them online for only $39, or make them ourselves as the ‘top secret’ recipe is out! I am not really a spaghetti and meatballs kind of girl, but my little Noah was sick with a cold this week and I wanted to make him some home style comfort food. They didn’t end up under the high chair, he tucked right into a bowl, so I guess if it’s good enough for New York’s elite, it’s good enough for him!
We enjoyed them too; I’ll be making them again.
Thanks Mama Dispirito!

Mama’s Meatballs 1/3 cup chicken stock
1/4 yellow onion
1 clove garlic
¼ cup fresh Italian flat-leaf parsley, chopped fine
1/2 lb ground beef
1/2 lb ground pork
1/2 lb ground veal
1/3 cup plain breadcrumbs
2 eggs
1/4 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated
1 tsp red pepper flakes
1 tsp salt
3-6 cups of your favorite marinara sauce
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil 1. Place the chicken stock, onion, garlic and parsley in a blender of food processor and puree.

2. In a large bowl, combine the pureed stock mix, meat, bread crumbs, eggs, Parmigiano-Reggiano, red pepper flakes, parsley and salt. Combine with both hands until mixture is uniform. Do not over mix.

3. Put a little olive oil on your hands and form mixture into balls a little larger than golf balls. They should be about ¼ cup each, though if you prefer bigger or smaller, it will only affect the browning time.

4. Pour about 1/2-inch of extra virgin olive oil into a straight-sided, 10-inch-wide sauté pan and heat over medium-high flame. Add the meatballs to the pan (working in batches if necessary) and brown meatballs, turning once. This will take about 10-15 minutes.

5. While the meatballs are browning, heat the marinara sauce in a stockpot over medium heat. Lift the meatballs out of the sauté pan with a slotted spoon and put them in the marinara sauce. Stir gently. Simmer for one hour.

6. Serve with a little extra Parmigiano-Reggiano sprinkled on top. Serve alone or over spaghetti (in which case, you will need 6 cups of marinara). Serves 6.