Wednesday, November 2, 2011

city bites goes live at urban element

urban element is thrilled to be the host venue to a new series loosely described as "live food blogging" by Ottawa Magazine Food Editor Shawna Wagman. This is the concept behind her three-part series of interactive dining experiences, where, acting as the honorary emcee, she brings interesting culinary guests to the table in a Q&A format. We'll be re-capping Shawna's entries from the Ottawa Magazine site - welcome Francisco Alejandri of Agave y Aguacate as our first special guest.

Last week, as part of Ottawa Magazine’s City Bites Live series, I hosted a special evening at Urban Element designed to introduce an enthusiastic group of home cooks, from armchair to serious, to the pleasures of genuine Mexican soul food. Expectations soared when Chef Francisco Alejandri started the class by saying: “I am 100 percent sure you will never see food like this in a restaurant.”

Alejandri is the owner of what can only be described as a gourmet Mexican food stall, Agave y Aguacate, tucked away in Toronto’s Kensington Market. During the three-hour class, he introduced us to six simple, but spectacular Mexican dishes featuring beautiful fresh tomatoes, tomatillos, and cilantro from Castlegarth Restaurant’s farm in White Lake, Ontario. Alejandri was the guest chef at Castlegarth the night before — he and the owner, Matthew Brearley, happen to be good friends from their Stratford Chefs School days. (Here’s a secret: we can expect to see Alejandri assisting Brearley at Gold Medal Plates in Ottawa this year).

As our evening unfolded, small courses were served along with wine and beer and everyone joined in with questions for the chef. Slowly you could feel the energy in the room intensifying as everyone fed off the quiet passion of the chef. The food was indescribably fragrant and delicious. The evening was truly memorable and inspiring.

Ten Inspiring Ideas About Mexican Cooking

1. Mexican cuisine is no more about sizzling fajitas, cheesy nachos, and salt-rimmed margaritas than pineapple chicken balls are a reflection of authentic Chinese cooking.

2. Mexican cuisine is perhaps one of the world’s earliest fusion cuisines. It was and remains a cuisine based on the staples of corn, beans, and chilies. With the arrival of Spanish in the 1500s, new meats, nuts, spices, fruits, and cheese were integrated into indigenous cooking. Over the course of the last 500 years or so, Mexican gastronomy has drawn from French, African, and even Asian influences.

3. In 2010, traditional Mexican cuisine was named on the representative list of the “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” by UNESCO.

4. Avocados were known by the Aztecs as “the fertility fruit.” The word “avocado” comes from the Spanish aguacate, which comes from the word for testicle.

5. Part of the reason Mexican cuisine is gaining in popularity lately is that many dishes are naturally gluten-free.

6. Mole means thick sauce and guacamole means thick avocado sauce. The key to great guacamole is in the paste that you start with before adding avocado. Many people make the mistake of using jalapeño peppers, but it should be serrano.

7. Francisco’s trick for making homemade tortilla chips is to spray the hot chips with saltwater solution. The water quickly evaporates leaving the salt clinging evenly to the chips. Much more effective than sprinkling with salt afterwards.

8. According to Francisco, tomatillos contain naturally complex flavours ranging from peanut butter to gooseberries to green apple.

9. The secret to delicious and perfectly balanced dishes is to taste, taste, taste as you cook.

10. In the kitchen, there is no substitute for patience, passion, and really good quality olive oil.

(Next up, a recap of the umami event.. and in January, the third installation in this series, we're holding out for some special guests from stay tuned! We'll post the exciting news on our blog!)

Friday, August 19, 2011

Credit where credit is due!

in rushing to get my last two posts up, I completely missed crediting the photographer responsible for the beautiful photos that have accompanied my words. the massively-talented and dapper orion zuyderhoff-gray is responsible for any of the pro-looking images you see. (the others are simply me on my blackberry or barb on her point-and-shoot)!

thank you orion, you make us look gooood!


Wednesday, August 17, 2011

change is in the air

as an event planner, i’m always working in the future ... and yet i can't quite believe how fast september is coming at us! we are madly booking in the ‘back-to-work’ corporate events, the private celebrations and holiday parties that keep all of us at the urban element on our toes in the peak season months.

our fall class calendar is now up on the ue website. we have some new faces coming to play in our kitchen: ottawa magazine food editor shawn wagman hosts a city bites event with toronto chef francisco alejandri in september; more interactive dinners like the ‘mix and match’ series - black cat bistro and mariposa farms in october; and the tried-and-true (four - count ‘em four!) holiday baking classes with resident chef candice butler in november and december. yes, i may scream in horror when I see that first fallen leaf on the ground in the next month or so ... but i admit, i love the change from lazy summer days to the hustle and bustle of fall.

while summer is typically a quieter time here at the kitchen, i have to say – we’ve done some fun stuff!

as i write this, we are in our final week of our kids culinary camps. running for 4 weeks this summer, chef stephen pollock (with his two energetic assists julia and maurcio) hosted over 55 kids, who busied themselves in our kitchen creating delectable plates from a different menu each day. i’ve arrived daily at the kitchen to the smells of spicy saffron paella ... fresh baked baguette ... local, grilled beef burgers with caramelized onion relish ... and cinnamon churros with goats milk caramel. these are just a few of the dishes these kids have created from scratch (and i’ve been lucky enough to enjoy for lunch)!

both the tweens and teens truly enjoyed their time with us, and we are thrilled to discover so many young, burgeoning chefs out there. kids really do care about food! it’s inspiring to know that we are helping to foster a love and respect for beautiful, wholesome food, as well as providing knowledge, skills and experience in the kitchen. i hope the parents reap the benefits at home as well!

speaking of kids, our resident chef candice butler’s son cameron got to show off his skills on the a-channel morning show on July 19th. we were invited to the studio to talk about the urban element summer offerings, and to demo a green gazpacho (a fun and healthy kids camp recipe) as well as a no-bake raspberry cake from chef candice’s summer desserts class. it was quick (we were in and out by 10am) and fun (cameron got to eat lots of 'green room' doughnuts). live television is awesome!

another memorable event in july was our beautiful, bountiful b.c. dinner with chef anna march of mariposa farms, and sommelier andrew rastapkevicius of lifford wines. we offered up a six-course meal inspired by chef anna’s time spent cooking on the west coast, paired with some of the okanagan’s best wines. chef anna and assist candice worked together seamlessly to create some seriously beautiful plates including a sockeye salmon tartar with yuzu, and a soy-lacquered true cod with baby bok choy and scallions. wine pairings featured two amazing wineries - joie farms and blue mountain (which produces my new favourite chardonnay, by the way). andrew poured, educated and charmed all of the guests, and with all that food and wine, everyone literally rolled out of here at the end of the night!

and so, it’s been another summer chock-full of gorgeous food. now that i’ve completed my wine tasting course at algonquin college, i can also say it's one that involved experiencing many new wines along with that food. I look forward to the fresh flavours the new season will bring, the Indian summer we’ll get (hopefully), and yes, even to the sight of that first fallen leaf.


Wednesday, July 13, 2011

happy summer!

we are halfway into july with some great classes and events behind us ... and many more to come! thought i’d share a few.

the urban element kicked off the season on june 18th with local chef richard nigro’s beer, bourbon and grilling class. it was a gorgeous day ... warm and sunny with a light breeze. the bbq’s were rolled out to the back door, fired up and made ready for action.

the sold out class of grilling enthusiasts gathered at 10am in the kitchen, hosted by the charming barbara (famous for remembering everyone’s name within five minutes). we had some new folks and some ue regulars with us ... everyone enjoyed this informative and engaging class. there was meat - a lot of meat!! pork, chicken, and beef, all done up with an amazing variety of rubs and marinades that chef richard has created from scratch. (in fact, he is selling his products locally at sasloves on wellington, and the red apron on gladstone avenue). the kitchen was busy with participants creating yummy sides such as red cabbage slaw, grilled naan, plantain fritters, and tomato-avocado salsa, to mention a few. and everyone took turns on the grill with chef richard at their side offering up his secrets of great grilling and bbq.

our next grilling intensive was led by chef charlotte langley of the whalesbone. grilling fundamentals: the heat is on (the first of three this summer) was an introduction to chef langley’s unique approach on grilling techniques and accompaniments. with recipes for such sauces as ‘southern funk’ and the ‘mediterranean invasion’ lovingly slathered over chicken wings, lamb chops and some of the biggest scallops i’ve yet to see, the participants had plenty to do and plenty to eat. it was another perfect summer day to be outside around the grills. in fact, we’ve had to add a bottle of sunscreen to our first aid supply!

on a side note and in closing, my favourite event this time of year is now a distant memory ... but still worth a mention. oysterfest, the annual event hosted by josh, kate, charlotte and the rest of the whalesbone crew just gets better and better. we arrived to the outdoor site on kent street about an hour before shucking began. as an ‘oyster-girl’, running shucked oysters from the shuckers onstage ... to the judges backstage ... and finally to delighted onlookers for sampling, i was in the thick of it and enjoyed every minute. top local and visiting shuckers and chefs from ontario and quebec competed against each other. the contest closed with chef mike poliquin from metropolitain brassiere (the winner of the chef contest) beating the rodney of rodney’s oyster house ... very exciting! i saw many good friends, ate a lot of oysters, drank beau’s beer, danced to the devillaires and the soul jazz orchestra ... and didn’t even get rained on. perfection!

again ... wishing everyone the happiest of summer days. till next time!


Saturday, June 25, 2011

time flies...

time flies when you're having fun!

wow, where has the last 3 months gone? well, i suppose we've been having so much fun here we lost track of time altogether. i thought i'd recap a few of the highlights we've been up to since our last post....

in march, Massimo Capra, Jason Parsons and Michael Bonacini made a trip to Ottawa to promote their new cookbook, Three Chefs. i got a behind the scenes peek into how these three collaborated to produce a cookbook that precisely reflects a true sense of passion, fun and adventure that makes them a great threesome. the cookbook reflects a variety of creative ideas - the recipes are representative of truly down to earth cooking and highlight the best of each season. i've included one of Michael's recipes below - a great one to enjoy once peach season arrives.

Watermelon, Peach and Ginger Salad with Shrimp & Wasabi

In a bowl, combine the lime zest and juice,
ginger, garlic, rice vinegar, hydrated wasabi, and soy sauce.
Whisk together.

Slowly drizzle in the oil, whisking to emulsify the dressing.
Check and adjust the seasoning.
Preheat a stovetop grill pan on medium-high heat.

Brush the peaches on both sides with oil and grill them,
cut side down, until golden brown and caramelized, 3 to 4
minutes. Turn over and grill 1 to 2 minutes more. Transfer
to a plate.

Mix the shrimp with the olive oil and season with salt and

Reheat the grill pan on medium-high heat. Cook the
shrimp for 2 minutes on each side until just cooked
through, then transfer them to a bowl.

Toss half the dressing with the shrimp until the shrimp
are evenly coated, and set aside. On each plate, arrange
two watermelon wedges, several onion rings, and a grilled
peach half. Place the shrimp around the fruit. Drizzle with
the remaining dressing and sprinkle the mint over top.

Zest and juice of 1 lime
1 thumb-sized piece of ginger, grated
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tbsp/15 mL rice vinegar
1 tbsp/15 mL wasabi powder (mixed
with 2 tbsp/25 mL warm water)
1 tsp/5 mL soy sauce
¼ cup/50 mL olive oil

2 peaches, halved
1 lb/500 g large shrimp, peeled
and deveined
1 tbsp/15 mL olive oil
Salt and pepper
8 2-inch/5 cm wedges of watermelon,
seeds and rind removed
1 small red onion, sliced thinly in rings
1 tbsp/15 mL finely sliced mint

This is the quintessential summer salad. Very fresh, with a hint of sweetness and a surprising but welcome wasabi bite, it’s perfect at lunch or for backyard entertaining. Just be sure the watermelon and peaches are ripe—you want to be able to taste the sunshine! —Michael

then in late march we had a special visit from alex talbot of the alex and aki >ideas in food blog and literary phenomenon. ideas in food has been toted as the essential reference book that belongs "on the shelf of every fan of contemporary cooking". inspired by atelier's marc lepine, alex ventured to ottawa one grey march day to enlighten chefs and ottawans alike with his intelligent approach on techniques and recipes.after sitting in on his demo, i realized that this book works for everyday culinary enthusiasts - and has been written in a way that gives applications on recipes for even a home cook like me! great read, great guy.

alex in action in the UE kitchen

and finally, a true highlight of early spring, a few of our staff got together and visited the martin picard's acclaimed cabane a sucre. we starved ourselves all day to make room for the spectacular 12 course meal! truly, a culinary adventure. candice was over the moon to meet martin in person - what a truly hospitable man and a hospitable place - and wow, were we in food heaven! even five ravenous adults with healthy appetites couldn't finish off every morsel of the feast that just seemed to flow non-stop from the kitchen. just give us a blanket and we could have curled up outside on the porch and awoke to do it all over again! (well, maybe after we found a way to curtail the "food hangover" that inflicted us all the next day...)

an ecstatic candice and a very jolly happy-go-lucky martin

seat with a view

my personal favourite, smoked sturgeon with creme fraiche, pickled onions and herbs on an acadian-style "pancake" (by far, the tastiest "taco" i've ever had)

the famous PDC tourtiere. believe us, this is the real deal.

and here we are in june! stay tuned... more edible adventures to come, with contributions by the urban element team and beyond.


Tuesday, March 1, 2011

a match made in heaven

there are few things in life that qualify as a "match made in heaven" but in my humble opinion, when food and wine marry - when its carefully selected and hand-crafted by those who take their passion to heart - it has the potential to create one of the most divine, sublime and memorable impressions.

take for example the marriage of stratus wine and chef ryan crawford's cuisine.

recently we held an exceptional food and wine event that celebrated both the nature of stratus' philosophy - the art of assemblage - and the fine craftsmanship of in-house food production of artisanal products by chef ryan crawford of stone roade grille in niagara. stratus considers assemblage to be "the quintessence of winemaking"- referring to "the crafting of several grape varieties to create layered wines of complexity, wines that are a true expression of the vineyard's terroir" (not to mention, these wines are absolutely delicious!).

charles baker led the group in a lively interactive wine tasting throughout the evening and the wines absolutely sung with the food. this group was even lucky enough to savour his own Charles Baker Piccone Vineyard Riesling - which has, since its debut, sustained quite a cult following of its own. (if you want to pick a bottle up for yourself, you are in luck - the CB Riesling 2008 will be released in limited quantities in Vintages this weekend)

stone road grille is self-described as niagara's first "gastro-bistro" where on any given day you will find chef ryan crawford and his team producing a variety of house cured meats, salamis and pates - amongst other delicacies. for their signature charcuterie plate, artisanal home baked sourdough breads and house made preserves are delectable accompaniments. although taking such care and consideration to procure specialized products and use of local ingredients has become a bit of a standard in many modern day kitchens, the magic is truly felt when ryan's flavours meet on the plate.

stratus and stone road grille have shared a history of fine wine and food pairing and enjoyment over the years and here, in photo documentary, is the mouthwatering story of what unfolded at urban element that night....

Preserved White Asparagus /House Smoked Salmon Salad
Ice Syrup/Citrus Vinaigrette
2009 Charles Baker Riesling Picone Vineyard

Sustainably Caught Wild BC Tuna
Clams “Casino” Sauce
2006 Stratus White

“Shepherd’s Pie”
Braised Lamb Shank Ragu/Roasted Root Vegetable/Potato Puree
2007 Stratus Red

Monforte Goat Cheesecake
Strawberries Preserved in Balsamic/White Peppercorn Sauce
2008 Stratus Icewine Red

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

guest blogger: mix & match dinner

I'm pretty excited.

The Urban Element has started hosting a pretty cool event. It's this take on an Iron Chef evening - two chefs, one theme, and 4 courses... each. Marc Lepine had mentioned he was participating in the event when I interviewed him for the Celebrity Chef Event. As soon as he said the magic words: Urban Element + Trish Larkin + Marc Lepine = I just knew I had to be there.

It was sold out.

Of course it was! Who wouldn't want to attend a dinner cooked by two of Ottawa's most notable Chefs?

So I called Carley and asked if I could come and just take pictures. I promised to stay out of the way. I never even dreamed of tasting the food. She agreed and invited me to arrive while the Chefs were setting up. Perfect.

I arrived and was met with probably the calmest kitchen environment ever. Trish and Marc were calm and cool as they organized their prep and set out their plates. Both were laughing and smiling as they directed their assistants (A.J., Trish's sous-Chef at the Black Cat bistro and Luis, one of Marc's cooks at Atelier). Super laid back, lots of fun, incredibly professional and talented - that's what I would take away from my evening.

Carley greeted the 20 Urban Element guests and introduced the Chefs - who then explained the menu.

The theme was Underwater.

Trish had thought it up at about 4 am one morning (sleepless nights result in inspiration), called Marc up and he agreed. They then figured out their ingredients for each course: oysters, caviar, tuna, and cranberries.

Once those ingredients had been selected both Chefs went off on their merry way ... the next time they would discuss their plates would be that night, at the Urban Element.

One might think that might not work. It might be a disaster. That each two dishes per course wouldn't work together.

One couldn't be more wrong. Both of their menus were successes.

Every single plate was DELICIOUS. Simple. Beautiful. Flavourful. Exciting. It was everything you hope one of these events will be: mouth-watering food that leaves your pallet eagerly anticipating the next course.

And the Chefs ... well ... they were just plain super nice to hang out with. No drama, no tense moments - everything was lighthearted and fun - even when a 1/4 full tray of tuna fell on the ground - nothing. Just pick it up, toss it out and grab some uncut seared tuna from another tray. Done and Done. Even when a dessert wasn't being plated as quickly as the Chef had hoped - no big deal - work as fast and as efficiently as is possible ... and then do a demo so that everyone could see exactly what was required to get that plate to the table (let me tell you - no one minded either ... it was a pretty cool demo).

My task in all of this was simple: take pictures, chat with the chefs and taste the food (yes there was enough to allow me to sample). I anticipated liking either Trish or Marc's food better - I wasn't sure who's - but I was certain there was going to be a stand-out.

It didn't happen.

Each course was an adventure - and I think everyone would agree it was a fun one: where one Chef would serve us something delicate and mild in flavour; the other would then shock us with a spicy kick, or something more complex. But neither one seemed wrong - they both worked. It was AWESOME.

While the guests were enjoying their meal, I got to hang out with Trish and Marc in the kitchen - where they would both talk me through their dishes.

Marc used some liquid nitrogen (too cool for words ... especially when he used it on dessert), he also excitedly told me about his microwave cake (batter to cooked in 40 seconds!!!) that was then dehydrated and became this addictive crispy ginger thing (it almost resembled the texture of a crouton ... but way better and looked more like coral).

Trish was able to use the event to make dishes she wouldn't make at the restaurant - lots of little details, lots of flavour, all the components adding to the whole effect. She pulled out this pancetta that still makes my mouth water just thinking about it. It was probably the best pig product I've ever tasted. Oh yeah - and then she served a rich, creamy panna cotta that would make a person swoon.

I'm glad I wasn't asked to pick my favourites. But if I had ... well it would have been a close draw ...


Trish: sea angel oyster, preserved lemon & horseradish-foam


Marc: raw oyster with bacon, apple, and jalapeno


Trish: whitefish & salmon caviar, creme fraiche, smoked potato & cranberries
Marc: potato and dill salad with black olives and whitefish caviar


Trish: albacore tuna, BCB pancetta, charred tomato and olives

Marc: thai curry dish with tuna (lime, coconut, cilantro)


Trish: sour cream panna cotta, cranberry jelly, white chocolate ice cream & almond biscotti (apologies ... I didn't take a picture of the plate with the ice cream on it ... it was melting at I just wanted to eat it)

Marc: chocolate, cranberry, tonka bean

this is what happens to Marc's dessert when he allows it to melt ... :0)

The evening was a brilliant success. If the Urban Element wants to host another evening with Trish and Marc - count me in. Seriously.

I took rather more pictures that what you see here (almost 500 pictures prior to editing ... but I still have a large amount ... so I'll link up my flickr album to my own blog the twisted chef - feel free to check those pictures out as well)

Thursday, February 3, 2011

and a way we go...

wow! its already february! can anyone tell me where january went?!

we've started 2011 with a bang and already have had lots of exciting events and classes since we re-opened after a short break between the holidays. pies, breads and duck has been a major component of january.

february means winterlude for ottawa. now that winter has officially arrived, and the canal has finally frozen over, thousands of people will take to the festivities and culinary events happening over the next few weeks. as part of taste of winterlude we're thrilled to be hosting stratus wines and stone road grille from niagara-on-the-lake for a spectacular wine dinner next week.

stay tuned for a few new faces on the blog this year. i'd like to provide a bit more visual perspective from the kitchen with the camera - and we have some foodie friends who will be sharing their up close and personal urban element experiences with us.

in the meantime i'll be hibernating with a hot mug of chocolate (my ode to valentines day) fingers crossed that my reservation for the CABANE À SUCRE comes through this year.

already dreaming of maple.....