Wednesday, September 24, 2008

experimenting with risotto recipes - recipe: risotto with butternut squash, maple bacon & fresh thyme

Risotto is a dish that some home chefs are reluctant to prepare because of the work and time involved.

I'm not afraid to make it, but sometimes I'm afraid to "say it" because my husband, David, (who is of Italian descent) sometimes teases me for calling it "rah-ZAW-toe."

When I was at chef school, my class was fortunate enough to learn about risotto from visiting chefs from Italy. They inspired me to experiment with recipes (and also stressed that a plate of correctly prepared risotto should move like a wave when jostled).

Risotto really isn't very complicated -- however it does take a bit of time to prepare. I would describe it as an Italian rice dish that is made by stirring hot chicken or beef stock into a mixture of Arborio or Carnaroli rice and chopped onions (and/or shallots) that have been sauted in butter and/or oil.

The stock is added a little bit at a time -- usually in one-cup increments. Because it has to be stirred almost constantly, it's a perfect meal to prepare on a weekend when you have more time (and can treat yourself to a glass of wine while you are making it).

After all that stirring, the rice tastes incredibly "creamy."

Risottos can be flavoured with an almost infinite number of ingredients -- let your taste and imagination inspire you.

Among other things, I've used sausage, chicken, shrimp, mushrooms, pumpkin, roasted vegetables and beets (but not all at once, no matter how hungry David tells me he is).

Risotto is one of my hubby's favourite meals -- and of all the risotto combinations I've made, the following recipe is most definitely his favourite.

He actually got down on one knee and proposed after I made this for him the first time (just kidding, but he really does love the combination of the salty bacon with the sweet, tender squash).

Risotto with Butternut Squash, Maple Bacon and Fresh Thyme


  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 cup shallots, finely diced
  • 1 cup cooking onions, finely diced
  • 2 cups Arborio or Carnaroli rice
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 6 cups (or more) low-salt chicken broth or stock
  • 2 cups butternut squash, peeled and cut in cubes
  • 1 package (or more -- I use a whole package) of maple bacon
  • 2 tbsp fresh thyme, chopped
  • 1/2 cup parmesan cheese, divided
  • 4 tbsp butter (optional)
  • salt and pepper, to taste


  • Pan fry bacon in a large saute pan set over medium heat -- cook until crispy (you can also line a baking sheet with foil and parchment paper and cook the bacon in an oven).
  • Remove the bacon from its drippings, chop the bacon into one-inch pieces and set aside.
  • Meanwhile, bring the chicken broth to a simmer in a large saucepan over medium-low heat. Cover and keep warm.
  • Heat two tbsp of butter and two tbsp of olive oil in a heavy large pot over medium heat. Add onions and shallots.
  • Saute until onion-shallot mixture begins to soften, about two minutes.
  • Add rice, stir until rice is translucent at edges but still opaque in centre, about three minutes.
  • Add the white wine and simmer until the wine is absorbed, stirring occasionally, about two-three minutes.
  • Add one cup of warm broth. Simmer until the broth is almost absorbed, stirring often, about two-three minutes. Add two cups more broth, one cup at a time, allowing each addition to be absorbed before adding the next and stirring frequently, about six-eight minutes.
  • Mix in the cubed butternut squash and the thyme and one cup of broth. Simmer until broth is just absorbed, stirring often, about five-seven minutes.
  • Add two cups more broth, one cup at a time, allowing each addition to be absorbed before adding the next and stirring frequently.
  • Add cup of grated parmesan cheese, the chopped maple bacon and four tbsp of butter (you can omit the butter if desired). Simmer until the butter melts and the risotto is creamy, stirring often and adding more broth by 1/3-cup fulls if the risotto is dry or the rice isn't quite cooked.
  • Test to make sure that the squash is fork-tender and that the rice is cooked to your liking - season with salt and pepper.
  • Portion risotto into bowls or onto plates and top with the additional cup of parmesan cheese.

Note: Knowing exactly when to add the cubed butternut squash can take a bit of practice (you don't want to add it too late or else your rice will be cooked but your squash will be raw).

If you're a bit nervous, boil or bake your squash ahead of time, and then puree it in a food processor or using a potato masher with a bit of milk or cream. Fold in the butternut squash "puree" when you add the maple bacon and the butter in step number 6 above.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

lifelong passion for cooking began with a childhood brownie-baking fiasco - recipe: decadent double chocolate brownies

Ever since I was a young girl, I loved cooking, baking, parties, entertaining and, of course, eating.

I come from a family where food plays a very important role in our lives -- I have many fond memories of sitting around the family table, enjoying good food and conversation.

Although my mother did not share my passion for entertaining, she certainly encouraged me to pursue a career in the food and hospitality industry.

I completed my undergraduate degree in hotel and food administration from the University of Guelph before attending chef's school a few years later at George Brown College in Toronto.

When still in primary school, I distinctly remember telling my mom, "When I'm a grown-up, I'm going to have a dinner party every night of the week!"

Well, I'm an adult now, and although I don't have the time to entertain as often as I'd like to, owning a specialty food store and catering business allows me to at least feel like I'm hosting fabulous parties every night.

Food is a way to connect -- to not only show love and to comfort but to bring people together -- whether it be a special dinner for two, a family supper for six or a blow-out bash for 50.

My goal in writing this column is not only to share fabulous recipes with you, but to inspire you to slow down and enjoy the simple pleasures that cooking for yourself and others (not to mention eating) can bring.

Because of my passion for entertaining, there will be an emphasis on party planning, presentation ideas and unique recipes to help you entertain with style, ease and confidence.

However, as a "foodie," I also plan on sharing the newest trends and ideas that I pick up at catering conferences, tips and techniques to make your life easier, as well as other interesting tidbits that relate to food.

To understand me a bit better, let me introduce my family.

My mother is a fabulous cook and baker and I'm so grateful to her for teaching me not only how to cook, but the importance of healthy, balanced meals and how to enjoy everything in moderation.

While I was growing up, my dad was the resident breakfast cook -- on Saturdays he would make a traditional "English" breakfast.

Sundays were even more delicious -- blueberry and banana pancakes served with bacon or sausage.

Dad doesn't prepare many breakfasts for the entire family anymore, but he can always be counted on to pair a fabulous wine with whatever we are eating (at dinner, not breakfast).

My brother loves food too. As a student away at university, when not attending class, much of his time was spent cooking. He made lasagna from scratch -- no pasta machine either -- he rolled the pasta by hand.

His roommate, a smoker, dubbed his marinated steaks "two smoke steaks" because they were so good that he had to have two cigarettes afterwards.

He still loves to be in the kitchen, is quite knowledgeable about wine and could easily cook for a living -- my sister-in-law is one lucky gal.

Although my husband, David, does not enjoy cooking, he does love to eat (and eat and eat -- he's Italian) and is by far my most critical recipe tester.

Lastly, the newest addition to our family -- our son John, who was born this past May. I am already counting down the days until his six-month "birthday" when he can eat solid food.

The first recipe that I'd like to share with you is my Aunt Julie's double chocolate brownie recipe, which evokes strong memories of my childhood.

When I was 10 years old, this recipe was my first "real" attempt at baking something from scratch. To make a long story "shortt," after the brownies came out of the oven, I placed the hot pan onto our kitchen table, which was made of glass.

I didn't realize that the hot pan would crack the glass, and would thus ruin the table.

I was very worried that I would be in a lot of trouble, but my mom didn't get too upset because she knew that it was an accident.

Now that I'm older, I really appreciate that I wasn't scolded for this mistake because if I had been, I may have stopped experimenting in the kitchen out of fear (and then perhaps never started a business built around my love of food).

Thanks mom, and thank you for teaching me that you can enjoy everything in moderation -- even brownies.

Decadent Double Chocolate Brownies


  • 1 cup all purpose flour
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/3 cup butter, unsalted
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 2 cups chocolate chips, divided
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 2 eggs


  • In a small bowl, using a whisk, combine the flour, baking soda and salt.
  • Set aside.
  • In a small saucepan, combine the butter, sugar and water.
  • Bring just to a boil. Remove from heat.
  • Add one cup of chocolate chips and the vanilla.
  • Let sit for a minute or two to help melt the chips.
  • Stir until the chocolate melts and the mixture is smooth.
  • Transfer chocolate mixture to a bowl and add the eggs, one at a time. Gently fold in the flour mixture.
  • Add in the remaining one cup of chocolate chips.
  • Bake in an eight-inch square tin pin at 325 degrees Fahrenheit for 30-35 minutes.

quick tip:

When combining dry ingredients in recipes, use a whisk to stir instead of using a wooden spoon.

Whisking allows for a more even distribution of the dry ingredients.

entertaining idea

Cut brownies into small squares or circles and insert lollipop sticks into one end of each piece.

Allow your guests to dip their brownie "lollipops" into melted caramel sauce, chocolate sauce or whipped cream.

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