Every year my family gets together for a summer weekend party, filled with inside jokes, great food, fun in the sun and sometimes someone gets thrown into the water fully dressed. Lucky me, I come from a family of serious foodies. We all love to cook and experience with new recipes and ingredients. I am inspired by each and every one of them for all the diversity they bring to the table. Sure, sometimes it’s not easy to coordinate when you have about a dozen people contributing snacks, drinks and dishes – in the end it all works out.
The debate is always what to bring. The main is often planned well in advance (and there will be a special blog post dedicated solely to this main), therefore all that is left to do is put together salads, sides, apps, snacks, etc.
For a while I’ve wanted to experiment making a watermelon gazpacho, and now I had the perfect occasion to test out a recipe.
- 1 red onion, finely diced – about 1 cup
- 4 celery stalks, diced – about 1 ½ cups
- 2 cucumbers, diced – about 3 cups
- 3 large tomatoes, diced – about 6 cups
- 2 bell peppers, diced – about 1 ½ cups
- 2 lemons, juiced
- 2.5 liters of watermelon juice
- 2 garlic cloves, crushed
- 2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
- 1 tbsp hot smoked paprika
- ½ cup olive oil
- Salt and pepper to taste
So here it goes… this recipe easily feeds 12 to 16 people as an appetizer. Though I have included fixed measurements, what is important to note is the proportions so that you can cut the recipe is half or multiply it depending on how big or small your family is. When shopping for vegetables, go to your local farmers market so that you can get the freshest ingredients, and play around with colours and try using a variety of tomatoes – this really gives the dish a lot of subtle dimension.
In a large bowl, combine the finely diced red onion with the lemon juice and a couple pinches of salt and set aside for about 20 minutes or while you prep the remainder of the vegetables. When prepping the other vegetables, cut them up into a small dice and more or less the same size. Strain the juices, keeping only the onion. Combine all the diced vegetables, crushed garlic, balsamic vinegar, olive oil and spices.
Slowly add the watermelon juice until the mixture is as chunky or soupy as you desire it. To make the watermelon juice, cut up a melon and process the flesh in a blender until liquid. You shouldn’t have any problem blending the fruit. If you do, simply grab a large wooden spoon and smash the watermelon a bit before turning on the blender.
Once all the ingredients combined, refrigerate and allow the flavours to mingle for at least an hour before serving. You can also make this up to 24 hours before serving. Serve cold and garnish with chives or croutons.
As the evening progresses, wine glasses are filled, dishes are passed around, tasted and recipes discussed.
Finally the night falls, a campfire is lit, the acoustic guitar is played, we all sign along out of tune, and so begins the marshmallow roasting competition…
Onions are one of the most versatile staples of our pantry. They make for a perfect base and a perfect condiment, either cooked or raw. For now we will be dealing with the raw onion. I’m sure it happens to everyone; you eat a dish, bite into some raw onion and feel its pungency linger throughout the entire day. There are two tricks I like to use to diminish its pungency but without giving up any of the flavor.
Let’s start with a Montreal classic: bagels and lox. I personally have an affinity for St-Viateur’s all dressed bagels. At home I serve it up with cream cheese (and it has to be Liberté …or your local creamiest of the cream cheeses is a must), lox overflowing the sides of the bagel, a mount full of capers, coarsely ground pepper, a drizzle of lemon infused olive oil (take out your best-est olive oil here) and thinly sliced red onion.
To tame the pungency of the red onion as a condiment, you’ll want to start by thinly slicing it. In a bowl cover it with salt; pour cold water over the onions to cover and mix until the salt is dissolved. Add a few cubes of ice and let the mixture sit for at least 20 minutes. Strain and pat dry the onions. Drop a few over the lox to complete this all dressed classic Montreal bagel. These onions are also great for salads, sandwiches, burgers…
Another way to soften the blow of post onion bad breath is to marinade the onion in some sort of acid like lemon or vinegar. This is the base for my famous guacamole. Yes, I said it, famous! You can ask any of my friends and family. The onion taming technique is described below in the recipe and makes a great base for other dishes like gazpacho.
Kristel’s Kitchen Guacamole
- Two ripe avocados
- One small onion
- Two limes – juiced
- One garlic clove – pressed
- One tomato – seeded and chopped into a small dice
- Small bunch of cilantro – chopped
- 1/2 tablespoon Mexican spice blend – any generic grocery store mix works here, or make your own by combining equal parts of cumin, dried oregano, chili powder and paprika
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Splash of hot sauce – or as much as you or your guests can handle
Finely chop the onion. In a mixing bowl add the onion, the juice of one lime and a few pinches of salt. Mix it all together until the salt has dissolved and let sit for 20 minutes. At this point you can start mixing your guacamole. Scoop out the ripe avocado into the mixing bowl and using a fork mash it all up. Using a garlic press, crush one clove. Slice in half one tomato and using your thumb remove the seeds. Chop the tomato and add to the mixing bowl. I enjoy experimenting with different varieties of tomatoes but grape tomatoes give just the right amount of sweetness and they don’t need to be seeded. Gently mix all ingredients; careful, the tomatoes are delicate.
Mix in the Mexican spice blend and the hot sauce. I like playing around with different types of hot sauces and I usually use two kinds: a basic one to give a base of spice and one that adds a different flavor dimension, for example smokiness (think chipotle). This is the perfect opportunity to play around and wow your guests. If you have any fresh hot peppers on hand you can also add those into the mix (remember to use your latex gloves). Make sure to taste the guacamole and adjust the seasoning with pepper, salt, spice and perhaps even add more lime juice. Grab your favorite chips and dig in!
Event day! My boss graciously allowed me to leave the office early in order to do some last minute prepping and setting up. The campaign office doors are supposed to open at 6 pm. At precisely at 6 pm sharp and not a second later, supporters start filing in while I’m still setting up.
The trays and platters are filled a placed in the reception area, the menu and ingredient list displayed, napkins laid out and extra toothpicks ready at one’s fingertips. Little by little people start crowding around the food table, shaking hands with the man of the hour – M. Karim Boulos, and mingling amongst them.
Around 8 pm the crowd starts to dwindle and the trays become emptier. With this event I not only had the opportunity of meeting many interesting people but was showered with compliments. *blushing*
120 tortilla cubes, 180 meatballs, 100 bavette skewers, 100 crudités bundles and 25 hours of labour later, the event can be deemed a success!
The campaign office doors opened, people were fed, people met, posters went up… the campaign is officially underway!
An immense thank you goes to everyone who supported and helped me over that week, especially my better half who himself was busy with his own campaign prep. Most importantly, thank you Karim for giving me my first catering gig!
Sit back, relax and grab a glass of wine because this is going to be a long one, quite representative of how my prep week felt.
Wednesday at 5 pm, the night before Karim Boulos’ Campaign Launch event, I am rushing out of the office and over to the grocery store to pick up the last of the ingredients needed.
At 5:30 pm, I’m flaring up the BBQ to char the red bell peppers, roast the garlic, sear the bavette and cook the kefta meat balls.
Two hours later, help finally comes to the rescue! Together we start chopping, mixing, blending and skewering the various ingredients.
At 10:30 pm, the kitchen looks like a huge mess and we finally take a moment to sit and relax while the tortillas cook in the oven. Wine in hand, tired and exhausted from being hunched over cutting boards, blenders and food processors, we sit back and proudly glare at the result of our labour neatly packed in their respective plastic containers, ready to be prepped onto their serving trays. By 11 pm Layla heads home to catch some well deserved sleep but if she hadn’t offered to lend a hand (and a sandwich) I would have been up much later than I was.
At 11:15 pm, there is only one thing left to do: cut up the cucumbers, carrots, yellow bell peppers and scallions into juliennes, to have them ready to be wrapped in nori just before the event.
At 1 am, I’m lying in bed exhausted yet restless… still planning how the event will unfold later that day….
Tortilla Española, makes one
- Eight eggs
- One onion, chopped
- Two potatoes, peeled and cut into small cubes (about 1 cm)
- One chorizo sausage, cubed (about 1 cm)
- ½ tbsp paprika
- Olive oil
- Salt and pepper
Begin by steaming or blanching the cubed potatoes until barely tender. You want the potatoes to hold their shape. If they start to break up they are overcooked. Strain, pat dry and allow to cool.
In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the eggs, the paprika, salt and pepper.
Preheat the oven to 400°F. Drizzle some olive oil in a medium oven-proof skillet and bring up to a medium heat. Add the onions and sauté until soft and translucent. You do not want the onions to brown. If they start gaining color, turn down the heat. Add the chorizo and potatoes, sauté a couple of minutes. Combine into the bowl containing the egg mixture and pour into the skillet. Cook until the bottom barely starts to set. Transfer skillet to the oven and allow the tortilla to cook through, about 30 minutes.
Remove the tortilla from the skillet by flipping it onto a plate (plate the plate over the skillet, then flip). This can be served hot or cold, in pie slices or cubes. Makes a great brunch or aperitif!
For this event, I needed to make three and I chose to serve the tortilla cold in bite-sized cubes, no dip necessary.
Roasted Red Pepper Dip, makes four cups
- Eight red or yellow or orange bell peppers
- Two tomatoes, blanched, peeled and cored
- One head of garlic
- ¼ cup olive oil + a few extra drizzles here and there as needed
- Salt and pepper
On the grill or in the oven on broil, roast the peppers whole until skin is completely charred. Remove from grill or oven, put in a large bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Allow to cool before removing the skin and seeds.
Slice the top of the heads of garlic, place on a piece of aluminum, drizzle with a little olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Wrap it all up with the foil and throw it onto the grill or oven. Let the garlic cook for at least 30 minutes or until the cloves sweeten and caramelized. Remove from grill and allow to cool.
Bring a medium pot of water to a boil. Score the bottom of the tomatoes with an X and drop into the pot of boiling water. Blanch for two minutes. Using a slotted spoon remove the tomatoes and immerse them into a bowl of ice cold water. At this point the skins should peel off easily. Remove also the core and put into the food processor.
Place the skinned and seeded peppers into the food processor, squeeze out the roasted garlic from its skin into the food processor, add the olive oil, salt and pepper. Blend until smooth. If the mixture appears too thick, feel free to add more olive oil. Thickness of this dip depends on how you like it. You can also make it extra thick and use it as a spread.
For this event, I used this recipe as a dip for my Kefta meat balls.
Chimichurri, makes about two cups
Let’s take a little trip down south, to a small place called Argentina. It the condiment used for all types of grilled meats. Used as a dipping sauce or a marinade, chimichurri is at the epicenter of Argentinean asados – aka. barbecue. After a few trial and errors I have come up with my own combination for chimichurri, one that is reminiscent of my many culinary experiences in Latin America.
- One bunch parsley, about 2 cups
- One bunch cilantro, about 2 cups
- Three garlic cloves
- One red hot pepper, finely chopped
- One lemon, juiced (about one tbsp)
- One cup olive oil
- Salt and pepper
In a food processor, mix together the parsley, cilantro, olive oil and lemon juice. You want the mixture to create a smooth blend. For the hot pepper, I recommend finely hopping it by hand so that it doesn’t get lost into the mixture. Don’t forget your latex gloves for this part!
Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper to taste. This mixture can be stored in the fridge for a couple of days but don’t forget to let it come to room temperature before serving since olive oil tends to congeal when cold.
For this event I grilled up some flank steak simply seasoned with salt and pepper, thinly sliced it and skewered bite size pieces onto a toothpick. I served it cold with the chimichurri as a dipping sauce. Chimichurri is great as a marinade or condiment on just about anything: beef, pork, chicken, shrimp, veggies…
Japanese Crudités Bundles
Crudités are always a staple snack food for any sort of event. There is a reason they have stuck around for so long, they are crunchy, healthy and foolproof, but who says you have to stick with the old fashioned carrots and celery with ranch dip. In an attempt to make things more interesting without adding too much complexity I decided to give it a Japanese twist.
For this recipe use a variety of raw vegetables that can be easily julienned into about 3 inch strips. Combine a variety of colors to maximize visual appeal. Create bite-size bundles and wrap it together with a strip of nori – seaweed paper normally used to make sushi. Mix up a dipping sauce and you’re ready to serve! Although this requires a little prep time, it is still a very simple dish that brings a lot to the table. People will be impressed, I promise. Here are the ingredients I used to put this dish together:
For the bundles: carrots, cucumbers, yellow bell pepper and scallions, all julienned and wrapped in a strip of nori. The nori is delicate and susceptible to moisture so try to work with dry hands, moistening your finger only to make the end of the strip wrapping stick together. You can use clean and dry scissors to cut the sheets of nori into strips. Play around with different sizes to see what works best for wrapping. Unfortunately these bundles cannot be prepared too much in advance or else the nori will get gummy and unpleasant.
For the dipping sauce: four parts soy sauce, one part sesame oil, one part mirin, hot pepper sliced horizontally (use as much or as little as you want), a few pinches of sesame seeds. Mix all ingredients together.
Black Olive Tapenade, makes one cup
- One can of black olives
- One garlic clove
- ¼ tbsp anchovy paste
- One small bunch parsley
- ¼ cup olive oil
- Pepper to taste
Strain the olives but preserve the liquid, it will come in handy if the mixture needs to be thinned out. Combine all ingredients in a food processor and mix until coarsely blended. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. Adjust thickness of the tapenade by adding some of the preserved liquid. Serve with crackers or any type of bread.
Don’t forget to check the cans of olives at the grocery store and make sure you’re buying the pitted kind. Or else you will end up like I did on Wednesday night at 9pm, spending over 30 minutes removing the pits from each individual olive. Thanks to my lovely friend Layla who generously offered to help with the catering prep work and provided Boustan sandwiches, we got a dis-assembly line thing going and finished in no time.
If ever you are faced with the unfortunate task of having to remove pits from olives, grueling as it sounds, there actually is a trick to doing this easily. Using the flat part of a chef’s knife (it’s the large one with a wide blade), press down on the olives. This should slit the olives and enable the pit to slip out easily.
An immense thank you goes out to Layla for not only helping with the prep work, but also for providing good conversation, great company and lots of fun!
This is the part I like to refer to as “What the hell have I gotten myself into?!?!?!”
In the past couple weeks I have been volunteering – aka supporting my better half – in the municipal electoral campaign for M. Karim Boulos as City Councilor for the district of Peter-McGill. In the midst of helping with translations, doing door to door drop offs of reusable shopping bags for a “plastic bag free Montreal” and simply lending a hand here and there, the discussion of the Campaign Launch event came up. On a whim, the words “I’ll cater your event for you!” slipped off my tongue before my brain realized the implications of what I said.
Before I know it my inner planner kicks in to high gear and I’m sending out menu items for a cold cocktail buffet. With the menu feedback I am also given the following parameters: there will anywhere between 60 to 100 people attending, the cocktail is this upcoming Thursday at 6pm, less than 6 days away, and there is no available budget. At this point, the inner planner slips into near-panic mode. I have never ever performed anything even close to this kind of reception. I’ve had prepared many 5 course dinner parties for 10 or more people, I have prepared eggs Benedict for more than 15 people for Jon’s birthday, but this kind of magnitude was way beyond my experience. I had no idea how much to prepare, how many dishes to present or how to manage with zero budget.
I decided to set a menu with items I was comfortable with and had previously prepared on more than one occasion. Of course, my creative side likes to show its colours in these types of situations so I came up with a different take on the fool-proof and oh-so-boring crudités platter and ranch dip: julienned veggies wrapped in nori served with a soy sesame dipping sauce – aka. Japanese Crudités Bundles.
Hell bent on getting this accomplished properly, I armed myself with my menu, ingredient list, shopping bags and headed to the market for my first round of shopping. Cucumbers, carrots, bell peppers (red and yellow), hot peppers, lemons, parsley, cilantro, scallions, garlic, 3 kg of Kefta meat = $45. Next stop is the dollar store for supplies. Napkins, toothpicks, tongs, plastic serving platters = $11.85. Final stop is the grocery store to pick up the menu’s staples. Eggs, potatoes, onions, chorizo, bavette (or flank steak), nori, sesame oil, soy sauce, black olives, anchovy paste, olive oil = $72.37.
Total cost so far is $129.22. Whoohoo! Mission one accomplished! I must keep reminding myself that I am not feeding a meal to these people, simply providing a little something to nibble on while they mingle, and assuming only 60 people show up then $2.15 a head is not a bad deal!
In any case, after the food prep frenzy I will have a better idea of what individual portions will look like.
Here is the final menu that will be featured at Karim Boulos’ Campaign Launch event, this Thursday, September 17th, 2009:
(eggs, potatoes, chorizo, onions, paprika, olive oil, salt and pepper)
Kefta Meatballs / Roasted Red Peppers
(Halal Kefta meat / red bell pepper, tomato, garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper)
Grilled Bavette / Chimichurri
(beef / parsley, cilantro, hot peppers, garlic, lemon, olive oil, salt and pepper)
Japanese Crudité Bundles / Soy Sesame
(nori, cucumbers, carrots, bell peppers, scallions / soy, sesame oil, hot peppers, sesame seeds)
Black Olive Tapenade / Flat Bread
(black olives, anchovy paste, garlic, parsley, olive oil, salt and pepper / courtesy of Arouch)