With travel this winter out of the question, evoking the spirit of exotic locales through food —whether from memory or from places imagined — can transport you there, albeit briefly.
To set the table, engage your imagination and set sail for adventure of the culinary kind. Who knows, you might even create a new holiday tradition.
Conjure up Paris or Provence, with an easy encore of French flavours. Think country pate, a gratin of potatoes, or — for dishier fetes — chicken braised with olives, tomatoes and red peppers, duck confit, or the bistro favourite of steamed mussels and frites.
Fromage should never be far from reach for any bonne fete. Choose three to four varying from soft to hard, fresh to aged, mild to pungent for a degustation. For sweets and savouries, you’ll look like the queen or king of patisserie with pre-made puff pastry, available in the frozen aisle at the grocery store. Swaddle it with pears and Roquefort blue for an exquisite dessert, or roll out and cover a sheet with caramelized onions, anchovies and olives for the classic pissaladiere.
Alternatively, make a rustic galette with some of that frozen stone fruit you squirreled away this past summer, or wrap it around small rounds of Brie or Camembert — locally sourced from Poplar Grove or Upper Bench cheeseries — and bake until golden. Pass the Champagne and serve with fresh grapes and slices of baguette.
Conjure up a table in Tuscany with a pasta night. Great Italian cuisine is about great ingredients so don’t scrimp on your food fantasy. Always choose quality tomatoes in the can — DOP-certified — for authenticity and flavour. Simmer them with the addition of garlic, olives and anchovies and you’re off to your own rendition of the film, “Big Night.” That pesto you made over the summer? Now is the time to relish its basil-garlic-pine nut pungency.
Or make a ragu, the classic hearty long-simmer meat sauce, perfect with any shape of pasta. When using dried pastas choose those made with bronze dies — it’s usually marked on the package. It creates a toothsome surface texture that allows the sauce to adhere to it. To perfect your mangia mentality nothing beats freshly made pasta. It takes minutes from cooking to plating, and if you’re not making your own, Miradoro Restaurant creates a line of fresh or stuffed pasta provisions — made with bronze dies — and frozen sauces from beef bolognese, wild mushroom and garlic alfredo to arugula pesto cream sauce.
And Front Street Brasserie is also offering housemade pasta sauces through their website. To truly live la dolce vita do not buy pre-grated parmesan, but purchase a big chunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano, Grana Padano or Pecorino, cut right from the wheel.
Use a vegetable peeler or grater for fresh and fragrant cheese every time. Adding quality olive oil and balsamic vinegar to your arsenal will also enhance your gusto drizzled on anything from prosciutto-wrapped melon, braised rapini or roasted beets to risotto or a Bellini cocktail.
Missing Mexico? Turn up the heat, don your tropical apparel, and shake up a few margaritas. Cue your mariachi playlist and dig into to a taco feast. Once you have the requisite salsa and guacamole at the ready, with hot corn tortillas, or even taco chips, consider making a queso fundido. Essentially a classic dish of bubbly melted cheese — a combination of mozzarella and jack cheeses is perfect — add roasted and sliced Anaheim chilies, crumbled sausage, sautéed onions and potatoes, and even grilled prawns to the melt. Keep a tin of chilies en adobo on hand to add a smoky even heat to anything for a taco fiesta. For example, leftover turkey or chicken can be shredded and added to a quick sauté of onions, tomatoes along with a couple of chopped adobo chilies. Have dishes of chopped white onion, cilantro and shredded cabbage to add to each taco for a muy autentico touch.
Grazing on a selection of small bites served up over an evening can be as exciting and satisfying as a full-on meal. Take cues from Spain with their rich tapas tradition for a passport to delicious. Lay out a dish of olives, salted Marcona almonds, and slice up your favourite baguette to top with a myriad of ingredients from roasted red peppers highlighted with fragrant olive oil, to chorizo, thin slices of jamon Serrano, Manchego cheese, and the classic potato tortilla topped with garlicky alioli.
Add something pickle-y and a tin of smoked or otherwise preserved fish and seafood. Choose from mussels, oysters, tuna, sardines or white anchovies. Spiked with toothpicks, nothing could be easier, tastier or more authentic. Hot tapas can be as simple as sauteed mushrooms in garlic flambed with sherry. A hearty grito of olé and glasses of cava or fino sherry complete this Spanish snapshot.
Shelora Sheldan is a writer, cook and curious traveller in search of the delectable adventure.