The Cutting Edge

We drove down to Halifax this weekend for the Taste of Nova Scotia Cutting Edge Chef Competition, a part of the Saltscapes Expo. What was I expecting to find? A lot of people, great food and wine, and a chance to cook. Ten chefs from around Nova Scotia were competing in the event. Each of us was given a black box containing secret ingredients, and we had 45 minutes to make something awesome. Well, everything went pretty well--yesterday I found out that I won!

My black box ingredients were pork tenderloins, honey, apples and quark cheese. I decided to keep it simple, as usual, so I made an apple-fennel slaw with a couple of greens, drizzled on a quark cheese and white balsamic vinaigrette, threw on a few pieces of crispy double-smoked bacon, seared off that pork, finished it with some honey and cream, and topped it all with a red wine onion confit.

Now, I could never have done it without my fantastic sous-chef who was assigned to me from the crowd. She made a point of telling me that she was not much of a cook, but Jee-whiz was she ever a wizard with the knife! We were both in good spirits and had a lot of fun cooking together. It's always nice to work with people who enjoy food as much as I do. So Jill, wherever you are, thank you!

Also, a big thanks to Alain Bossé and to Christine and all the team from Taste of Nova Scotia for putting together the Cutting Edge Competition and for making it so much fun. Local Food is the best! I owe a huge thanks to Earlene Busch of the Chanterelle Inn, who has been throwing me opportunities left and right. Oh yeah, and thank you Grohmann knives. I now have all top-notch tools!

And here I am, giving a demo; Wild Mushroom and Cheddar Risotto

A couple of people asked me for the recipe of the slaw that I made during the competition, so here it is. Enjoy!

Apple-Fennel Slaw

• 2 small apples, julienned • 1 fennel bulb, julienned • 1 small bunch of cilantro, chopped • 4 tablespoons almonds, roughly chopped • 2 tablespoons lemon juice • 1 tablespoons olive oil • pinch of salt

Mix all the ingredients together and let sit for at least 30 minutes, stiring once or twice. Taste, and add more lemon juice and salt to taste. Serve on top of some greens or salad.

5 ways to simplify your cooking

...and enjoy it more!

1. Use sharp knives

Dull knives are dangerous and a waste of your time. It matters more to use a sharp one than it does to use the "right" one. Have your knives sharpened regularly, or buy yourself a sharpener like this one, which will get your knife slicing tomatoes again in no time. If you're really into it, you might even learn to use a whetstone.

2. Take it easy

Take your time, unless you're really in a jam. The best way to avoid cooking-related stress, which always makes both the process and results less enjoyable, is to prepare in advance; mise en place, meaning: do the basics beforehand. Soups, sauces, marinades, desserts, slow-cooked meats and cut veggies can all be done hours or even days in advance, some will even benefit from it . All I'm saying is, take it easy and plan out what you're going to cook a few days in advance. It will give you more room to enjoy yourself in the kitchen.

3. Choose recipes with less ingredients

Some recipes are loaded with a multitude (a whole shopping list) of ingredients, and the thing is, you don't need a lot. For your cooking to be tasteful, you should focus on one or two key items and build the dish around them. Adding unecessary ingredients just because they're "fancy," usually only confuses the palate. I normally keep my item count under twelve; and butter, oil, salt, and pepper all count as ingredients.

4. Make use of your senses

Temperatures vary from oven to oven; so you should always keep an eye out... you may find yourself saving your turkey from drying up. You can trust your ears to know when the butter is hot enough and you can trust your nose to tell you when it's too hot. Also, don't be afraid to touch food! It's one of the best way to know if your food is any good. Watch, listen, smell, and touch. Oh yeah, and taste.

5. Clean as you go

Everytime I have a minute to kill in the kitchen, I clean my workspace and wash up what's in the sink. Firstly, it keeps you organized so that you know where you're going. Secondly, you won't look like a pig. Thirdly, you won't have a mess weighing on your mind while you eat.

Cooking in a Cabin

A couple of months ago we moved from a city with a population of 3 million to a village on Cape Breton Island of 900 people. We now live in a 400 square foot cabin on the top of a mountain overlooking the Bras d'Or Lake, an inland sea. I manage cooking in a 20 square foot kitchen, equipped only with a countertop double burner and small Breville convection oven. My counter space is just big enough to fit a cutting board and a couple of bowls, which is a change from my last kitchen about 5 times that size. But I believe in downsizing.

I do have another useful tool to play around with: the woodstove. So far we've used it to make tea, soups, and other slow cooked dishes, and it couldn't be easier. In the old days, they threw whatever leftovers there were (veg or meat) into a pot, put it on the woodstove, lit a fire, and went on with their duties. Coming back they would find the house filled with aromas of the herbs, meat, and vegetables that had been slowly cooking for hours. We're trying to go back a bit toward that old(e) simple way of living. So far the experience has been a delight and we have not seen the quality of our meals decrease.

But not to worry, I'm lucky enough to have good friends and family with full stoves and lots of counter space who encourage me to play around in the kitchen whenever they invite us over. So now the conveniences are a special treat!

We wanted country living, now we have it.