In these times of extreme heat and humidity, we all have our own coping methods. My survival strategy revolves around building a water work station with my newly purchased kiddie pool and lady bug sprinkler. Currently, I’m still in the process of figuring out how not to get electrocuted should my large and hyperactive dog accidentally knock the umbrella taped to the side of the pool into my computer, knocking it off the stool and into the water.
Chef, on the other hand, refuses to wade in my pool, and instead has chosen to play the martyr and sacrifice himself to the sun in order to preserve the well-being of his beloved vegetable garden: meticulously watering at dusk and dawn, pruning and weeding in peak hours with beads of sunscreen running down his face. This is less than surprising behaviour from someone who picks up scolding hot items with his fingers so often that he may no longer have finger prints. He calls it conditioning.
Luckily for us, before electrocution or heat stroke had a chance to strike, we received an invite to a friend’s cottage in Muskoka. Relaxation was to be ours, or so it seemed before I found myself witnessing a one man Top Chef competition.
It all starts off normally. We grab some ham and cheese croissants from Clafouti before starting off, which staves off hunger until we reach Webers Hamburgers off Highway 11, north of Orillia. Every northern-bound camper/cottager out of Toronto is sure to make the stop at this roadside grill for a charbroiled burger – everyone except for Chef and me. I watched with sadness and hunger as the Weber sign became a small speck in the sky, listening to Chef go on about the importance of the cut of meat used in burgers and the ideal fattiness and collagen found in brisket and short ribs.
This leads into a verbal essay on the staggering difference between pre-packaged ground meat and self-ground meat: the former tends to be finely ground, while the at-home-butcher can opt for a larger dye to achieve loosely-packed strains of meat, which allow the collagen room to breathe when sandwiched between the protein; which then gives it air to melt when on the grill, creating a silken chewiness, unattainable without the gelatinous texture of the collagen.
By the time he gets to how he likes to grill his burger (sear both sides on high heat, then close lid and cook for two minutes on low heat, flip and cook another two minutes ), I am pale with hunger and on the lookout for grocery stores where we can stop. We need to shop for supplies for the lunch we’re meant to be preparing upon arrival, and I need the sustenance of fried chicken immediately.
It’s quickly approaching our lunch date and we’re low on time due to a stop at a farmers’ market, where Chef refused to buy produce because they were selling tomatoes (not in season until August and categorized as “devil’s food” until then). We stop at a grocery store and I leave Chef to shop, giving him a budget, 25 minutes to meet me at the cash register and a list of the dietary restrictions of the guests: one vegetarian, one lactose intolerant and one professional food critic. Call it a hunch, but I think it was the last item on that list that gave him the Top Chef sweats.
Adamant about never making grocery lists or planning dishes ahead, Chef prepares even meals at home based upon the best available ingredients. Unfortunately, on this particular day, in this particular big-box grocery store, Chef found himself surrounded by tomatoes and corn (also to be listed under “devil’s food” until the end of this month), and ultimately in the middle of a culinary breakdown.
Back on the road and 30 minutes away from the cottage, it was obvious that Chef was in a state. He was making some sort of seafood dish and he was positive he did not have the right quality of ingredients, particularly in regards to the mussels, which were pre-packaged in a plastic container that Chef was convinced would suffocate them. He begins lamenting for Hooked, the latest supplier he’s signed on for his pop-up restaurant, Boxed.
Run by husband-wife chef duo Dan and Kristin Donovan, Hooked is one of the city’s best sustainable seafood suppliers and the current apple of Chef’s eye. He’s taken to sharing with me the joy of learning the daily specials via email; on this day, it’s the fresh Pacific herring from Vancouver that he’s pining for. But with the Leslieville fish store miles behind us, all there is left to do is hear out Chef’s anxiety about his supermarket aqua farm purchases until we reach the cottage.
Once there, the competition continues: the judges are sipping on sangria on the dock, Chef is alone on the deck before the barbecue battling hothouse tomatoes and possibly asphyxiated mussels. Lunch arrives on the table in individual bowls carrying steamed mussels, grilled whitefish and scallops in a roasted tomato consommé, garnished with dill, basil, oregano and olive oil-brushed crostini. The judges make their decisions: shells are emptied, soup is sopped up with bread – it’s a happy ending for Chef.
Something tells me, though, that despite the praise of the judges, Chef’s totalitarian view on the importance of seasonality has not been compromised by this recent cottage experience. Given the fact that the devil’s corn was tossed out that night, while the husks were spared to wrap and steam potatoes on the grill, I think it would be safe to assume that no one in our house will be enjoying any corn salsa until the late summer harvest.
1 cup of Ontario cherry tomatoes
2 garlic cloves
1 medium sized shallot
1 lbs of mussels (washed and beards removed)
1/2 cup dry white wine
6 large scallops
3 fillets of whitefish, skin and all bones removed
1 Tbsp each of; dill, mint, basil, oregano (chopped finely)
1 sour dough loaf
Extra virgin olive oil
1. Pre-heat grill, high on one side and med-high on the other.
2. Warm a healthy splash of good olive oil in pan on med-high side. Add 2 cups of cherry tomatoes, cook until blistered and browned.
3. Add 1 tbsp of minced garlic and half cup of brunoise shallots. Cook until shallots are translucent.
4. Add mussels and sautés for approximately 30 seconds. (*If you have it, a couple splashes of fish sauce here will bump up umami and bring out the mussel flavour.)
5. Deglaze pan with half a cup of white wine (best to use a wine that would be worth drinking). Cover for 2 minutes.
6. While the contents in the pan stew, season your scallops and tilapia with salt and pepper and grill on high heat side.
7. Grill until 50 per cent cooked, approximately two minutes on one side only. Remove from grill and place one scallop and half a fish fillet (grilled side up) into individual serving bowls.
8. Remove lid from pan and use slotted spoon to move roughly 10 mussels into each bowl.
9. Move pan to high heat side and allow remaining sauce to reduce for two minutes. Turn med-high side to low and grill sliced bread while sauce reduces; flip after one minute.
10. Spoon approximately a half cup of boiling sauce (be sure to catch tomatoes and shallot) over seafood. The residual heat from broth will cook through the fish and scallop.
11. Add a squeeze of lemon and a splash more of extra virgin olive oil before garnishing with fresh dill, mint, oregano and basil. Stick 2 slices of grilled bread upward in the bowl.
*Chef’s tip: Continually taste everything for seasoning purposes. Adding small amounts of butter at any time throughout this recipe will only help.
Toronto-based writer Jennifer Lee is the editorial director of FILLER magazine, an online fashion and culture journal. She is also the co-editor of Hardly magazine, an arts-centric online teen publication for Canadian girls. Her column, Chef & Me, appears biweekly.