All posts by Leslie Wu

Leslie Wu writes about food and travel and the spaces in between.
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Your Stress-Free Thanksgiving Dinner Checklist

The first time I cooked a traditional Thanksgiving meal from scratch, I can say for a fact that I used every single cooking vessel — pots, pans, roasters and Dutch ovens — in my reasonably well-equipped kitchen. Although I had lists upon lists and every step mapped out well beforehand, it still took three days of intensive cooking and resulted in my exhausted-self, muttering in an exasperated tone, “How the heck do people do this every year?” Experience has shown me the value of starting well ahead — a month or more, ideally. If this seems excessive, think of it as trading a frenzied few days for an hour here and there, resulting in a relaxing Thanksgiving. Here is a foolproof way to space out your Thanksgiving feast and make sure everything is on time, right up to the moment guests take their seats.

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Thanksgiving Menu (Serves 8)

Greek Mezze Platter
Mulled Cider
Perfect Roast Turkey (10 to 12 lbs.)
Cauliflower Gratin
Spinach Gratin
Stuffing
Dinner Rolls
Roasted Garlic Mashed Potatoes
Apple Pie
Vegan Strawberry Cheesecake Bites

One Month To Go

Order Your Turkey From the Butcher
You definitely don’t want to be the recipient of last-minute turkey on the big day, when selection is sparse and crowds are full. Ordering ahead — especially if you’re asking the butcher to do something more involved such as spatchcocking or you have a specifically sized bird in mind — will give you time to discuss your menu and get some cooking tips.

A general rule of thumb is a half pound to one pound of meat per person, but you want to err on the side of being lavish — leftovers are one of the best parts of Thanksgiving. For a foolproof turkey measure, the Turkey Farmers of Canada offers an online turkey calculator that will tell you the size of turkey you should buy, depending on the number of guests.

Sit Down and Plan Your Menu 
Right down to drinks and appetizers! Decide on how many people you’re looking to invite and send out invitations with an RSVP time of next week. If your friends and family are notorious for bringing unexpected guests, budget space and food accordingly. Be practical: do you have enough seating and table room for everyone to comfortably eat?

Clean out Freezer Space
This is the time to start using those meals you’ve put aside for a busy day or ditch that crystallized ice cream — you’re going to need that room in the weeks ahead.

Three Weeks To Go

Finalize Your Menu
Now’s your opportunity to whittle down your menu from all the things you optimistically wanted to make. Be ruthless in your planning — do you really need eight appetizers and five desserts for a party of eight? (The answer is no).

Make Two Shopping Lists
Read all your recipes carefully and make two shopping lists: one for non-perishables (you’ll be buying those this week) and one for perishables to be purchased closer to the big day.

Go Shopping
Beat the crowds and head out to the grocery store to stock up on your long-storing items in bulk: store-made or canned/boxed stock for gravies and soups, flour and sugar for baking, cocktail napkins, and juices and pop for drinks. Also, think about buying ingredient staples, such as garlic, onions, apples, potatoes, carrots or parsnips, which all keep well and will save you from an overloaded cart later on. Buy ingredients for stuffing, cranberry sauce and gravy to make next week. Consider purchasing wine and mixes for winter cocktails, such as a festive mulled cider.

Take Inventory
Open your cupboards and review your platters and serving dishes that can go from freezer or fridge to table and assign them to each dish: appetizers, turkey, stuffing, sauces, vegetables, dinner rolls, mashed potatoes, and desserts. Have a spare handy in case you misjudge the volume.

Simple-Oven-Baked-Stuffing-Recipe

Two Weeks To Go

Make Your Pie and Cheesecake Bites
Store them in the freezer on pretty plates that you can place on the table.

Time to Think Savoury Thoughts
Make-ahead gravy will take a last-minute item off your plate on the big day and let you focus on other things. Using roasted chicken wings builds a flavour base, so all you have to do is add the drippings when you’ve cooked your turkey and you’re all set. Cover and store in the freezer. Cranberry sauce is easy to make ahead, as well. Store it in a small microwavable dish that can go straight from the freezer to the table to save a plating step.

Get ahead of the game by making stuffing and storing it in the freezer and oven-safe dishes to make reheating a snap. Instead of one big container, consider making two portions to avoid having to pass big platters around the table (and upping the potential of using a toaster oven to reheat it on the big day, freeing up precious oven space).

Now’s also the time to par-bake dinner rolls to store in freezer bags (make sure to get out all the excess air) and whip up some make-ahead mashed potatoes to store in the freezer in oven-ready dishware.

One Week To Go

Grocery Shopping Round Two
Back to the grocery store with your second list of perishables, including vegetables such as cauliflower and spinach, dairy such as butter, milk and eggs, coffee and tea and any ingredients you need for appetizers. Consider some pots of fresh herbs for garnishes and aromatic table decorations.

Time for a Kitchen Inspection
Clean out space in the refrigerator for leftovers, and give it a quick wipe down so that new food doesn’t absorb the odours of last week’s takeout. Check your oven, toaster oven, stovetop and range hood to ensure they are clean and ready to go. Pop out greasy filters to give them a soak so that your fans work effectively. Locate your fire extinguisher (better safe than sorry), warming trays or chafing dishes and check that you have enough power outlets to run everything — a power failure is the last thing you need.

Check your Dishware and Cutlery Situations
Do you have enough matching plates, forks, spoons and sharp knives, coffee cups, and wine and water glasses? Locate your cloth napkins and tablecloths, and wash them if necessary.

Related: Turkey Cooking Tips to Roast the Perfect Bird Every Time

Three Days To Go

Pick up Your Fresh or Frozen Turkey
If it’s frozen, now is the time to start defrosting it in the refrigerator (for a 10 lb bird, Turkey Farmers of Canada recommends two days and two hours of defrosting time in the fridge).

Two Days To Go

Veggie Time
Make your veggie side dishes in table-ready serving ware, cover them securely and store in the fridge.

One Day Before

Get Your Gear Ready
Assemble serving platters for the turkey and rolls, as well as serving implements for each dish. Check how many trivets you have for warm dishes going to the table to preserve your tablecloths. Put together your smaller items, such as corkscrews, pie servers, gravy boats, ladles, electric carving knife, strainers and hand blenders for last-minute gravy adjustments, etc., to have on hand so that you’re not searching for them at the last minute. If you don’t use your coffeemaker or espresso machine regularly, pull it out of storage. Assemble appetizer and dessert plates with cocktail napkins.

Set the Table
Cover the whole table with another tablecloth or bed sheet to keep it dust-free, and watch out on removal so you don’t end up performing an inadvertent, unsuccessful, magic trick.

Prepare and Truss the Turkey
And store it uncovered in the roasting pan in the refrigerator to let the skin dry out for crispness.

Related: Delicious Uses For Leftover Mashed Potatoes

Gather Your Garnishes
A bit of watercress or other greens is a pleasing contrast to the turkey. Put butter into serving dishes, cover, and store in the refrigerator. Assemble your appetizer platters and store, covered, in the refrigerator. Chill white wine, juice and soda. Print out the game plan below so you can check items off as you go.

The Big Day

Treat yourself and sleep in! You’ve earned it, and you’ll need the energy as the day goes on. Make sure to have some lunch, so you’re not starving as the day goes on. Look over your lists and recipes again. Take the apple pie out of the freezer to defrost.

1 PM: Carefully remove the cover from the table setting and add any last-minute touches (the pots of herbs for an informal centrepiece, candles, fresh flowers, etc.).

2 PM: Pull turkey out of the fridge to bring to room temperature.

3 PM: Turn on the oven to 350 ° F to preheat. Add aromatics such as onions and apples, if desired, to the cavity of the turkey.

3:30 PM: Put the turkey into the oven.

4 PM: Open or decant wine. Put mulled cider on the stovetop to simmer.

5 PM: Bring your appetizer platters out of the fridge to serve, adjusting any seasonings or last-minute garnishes. Bring the mashed potatoes, stuffing and vegetables out of the fridge to bring to room temperature.

6 PM: Guests arrive. Serve appetizer platter, wine and mulled cider. Take the turkey out of the oven and cover with foil to rest. Pour off juices to add to gravy (reserve a 1/4 cup) and put on stovetop to heat. Put mashed potatoes, stuffing and vegetables into the oven. Carve the turkey. Take reserved juices and pour on top of the slices to keep them moist and plate them on your prepared platter with watercress.

6:45 PM: Take out potatoes, stuffing and vegetables and put them on the table. Put dinner rolls in the oven to finish baking and melt butter on a low heat on the stovetop to brush over. Call everyone to start getting ready to eat. Pour wine and drinks. Bring the rolls and turkey to the table.

7 PM: Dinnertime! Turn the oven off. Put pie in the oven to warm for dessert and bring out the cheesecake bites. Turn on the coffeemaker.

8:30 PM: Serve desserts and coffee and tea.

10 PM: Relax… the dishes can wait until tomorrow.

5 Cheap and Tasty Cuts of Pork to Make for Dinner Tonight

It’s easy to fall into a routine at the meat counter — after all, pork chops and steaks are simple and guaranteed crowd pleasers. For something a little more interesting, however, follow the lead of chefs across the country and look at off-cuts such as cheek, shoulder, hock, feet and tails, all of which, with a little preparation and care, yield great flavour. Or, if you’re set on pork tenderloin, try taking it one step further with savoury stuffings. Either way, stretching your imagination (and your dollar) a bit will land you a meal that’s a cut above the rest.

Rolled Pork Florentine

Get the recipe for Rolled Pork Florentine
Food Network Canada

Tender, My Love
Typically sold boneless, tenderloin is easy to portion out into individual medallions if you don’t want a larger roast, and is a good size for a smaller family.

How to Cook Pork Tenderloin: Lean and solid meat without much fat or sinew, fast-cooking tenderloin can be butterflied, rolled around savoury seasonings and roasted for a special occasion dinner or any time that warrants celebrating. Since pork tenderloin is relatively tender, it doesn’t need the low and slow cooking that tougher cuts require (in fact, overcook tenderloin and it will be dry and stringy). Prepare your filling ahead of time, and make sure it’s cooled before stuffing the tenderloin if it’s going to be sitting before cooking.

Tackle a crisp and crackling Stuffed Porchetta With Epic Homemade Gravy, spinach and bacon stuffed Rolled Pork Florentine, fly the Italian colours with Tricolore Stuffed Pork or go German with a Cauliflower and Caper Gratin With Pork Rouladen. If you’re lucky enough to have leftovers, make succulent sandwiches or try one of these recipes.

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Get the recipe for Instant Pot Barbecue Pulled Pork Sandwiches
Food Network

Shoulder Season
Pork shoulder (or its alter ego, pork butt) is a more heavily marbled area than tenderloin, and can be prepared with the skin on or off, and can come bone in or boneless. You’re more likely to see blade cut shoulder (which comes from the area closer to the tenderloin) at the supermarket.

How to Cook Pork Shoulder: Pork shoulder can be cooked low and slow as a roast, or, when thinly sliced into chops, grilled on the barbecue.  Cubed and seared off in a hot pan before adding to liquid, pork shoulder makes an excellent dish with lentils, adding flavour to braised dishes as it simmers away. Left whole, it’s the ideal vehicle for strong seasonings such as the vibrant herb and citrus marinade for harissa-spiked cider braised pork with apples. Or, pull the fork-tender pieces apart to shred for that summertime favourite, pulled pork sandwiches, best enjoyed with loads of smoky barbecue sauce.

Try making Pulled Pork Sandwiches (or one Mega Pulled Pork Sandwich), Cider Braised Pork Shoulder With Apples or Braised Pork Shoulder With Lentils.

Roasted-Pork-Hocks

Get the recipe for Roasted Pork Hocks
Food Network Canada

Hock It To Me
Meaty pork hocks come from the front or back legs of the pig between the foot and shoulder. You may also see smoked hocks in German or Polish supermarkets, which can be used like ham bones to flavour soups.

How to Cook Pork Hocks: Settle in: you’re going to need patience with this one. Due to the fibrous tissue and sinew in hocks, longer cooking times are a necessity. Pork hocks can be braised in liquid with vegetables for a complete meal, or, for a true lesson in crispy carnivorousness, brined and roasted for crackling that puts chicharrones to shame.

Try a relatively light hock preparation in a Pork Hock Terrine, or keep it crispy with simple Roasted Pork Hocks. If you’ve picked up a smoked hock, try the whimsically named Pig and Pea Soup.

Crispy-Pork-Cheek-Latkes

Get the recipe for Crispy Pork Cheek Latkes 


Food Network Canada

Turning The Other Cheek
Pork cheeks come from the often used face muscles of the pig, which have sinew running through them but not much fat. When cooked, pork cheeks are soft, yet maintain enough structure that they can be used to stuff ravioli, pulled apart for ragu or simply served whole on top of mashed potatoes or a purée of parsnips. Most butchers should be able to set some aside for you if you call ahead of time or put in a special order.

How to Cook Pork Cheek: A quick pan sear on each side of the cheek, then a covered braise in flavoured liquid, will make pork cheeks fall-apart tender. Unlike the time commitment needed for cuts such as shoulder, however, cheeks cook relatively quickly — in under half an hour for most preparations. Combined with shredded potatoes for a crispy latke and a powerful salsa verde, pork cheeks can be a hearty lunch or appetizer with a crunchy exterior yielding to soft and luscious meat.

Give Crispy Pork Cheek Latke a try.

Happy Feet (and Tail)
North Americans may be more familiar with pig’s feet and tails through the gustatory delights of Oktoberfest (such as the revelry in Kitchener-Waterloo’s annual celebration) or the lively culinary tales of Mennonite cuisine in Canada’s doyenne Edna Staebler’s Food That Really Schmecks. These off-cuts are part and parcel to many cuisines, from spicy Jamaican stew peas with pig’s tails to Chinese red braised pig’s feet, redolent with soy, black vinegar and ginger.

How to Cook Pig’s Feet and Tails: The natural gelatinous goodness of both tails and feet add body and gloss to stocks, leading to that jello-like consistency much prized among soup connoisseurs. Traditional preparations of both tails and feet often begin with a boiling step to soften the meat, which can be picked off the bone and used to punch up the flavour of meatballs or croquettes. Pig’s tails can also be slathered with your favourite sauce or glaze and crisped under the broiler or on the grill for a sweet and sticky treat that will add a twist to your next barbecue.

Ready to take that next step? Try Foie Gras Stuffed Pig’s Feet, Pig’s Feet Meatball Ragout or Pig Tail Croquette.

So remember, pork chops aren’t the only cut in town — from cheek to tail, the entire pig is your playground. If you’re intrigued and want to check out more common pork cuts, as well as recommended cooking times and other info, check out this check out this handy chart and trot off to your butcher counter right away.

Chuck and Danny’s Perfect PEI Breakfast

It’s the end of the road for Chuck and Danny as their epic culinary trip draws to a close. Driving the RV across the Confederation Bridge (the longest one in the country), the chefs are on the search for seafood — and Prince Edward Island is home to some of the best that Canada has to offer. Chef Ross Munro of Red Door Oyster Co. points the chefs north to harvest some of the ocean’s bounty onboard Lester the Lobster boat. “We’re here to show them PEI’s best,” says Munro, who gives the chefs a surprise gift: a huge bag of local mussels for a true Maritime breakfast.

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Ross Monro (right) takes Danny and Chuck out lobster fishing.

Mussels are big business in PEI, producing 50 million pounds (22,730 tons, if you’re counting) per year, according to The Mussel Industry Council of PEI. Canadian mussels should be shiny and blue-black when you buy them from the store. “You know they’re fresh when they smell like the ocean,” says Chuck.

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Acadian bread from  ‘the weirdest baker on PEI’.

Since Chuck and Danny have got straight from the source, they want to show off their mussel power with a nontraditional eggs Benedict, Maritime-style. Even though they’re camping beach-side, Chuck and Danny are still chefs at heart — no store-bought English muffins, here. Friend and fellow chef Robert Pendergast (the self proclaimed “weirdest baker on PEI”) is camping at the same park with his family, and he stops by with some of his famous fresh-baked heritage bread, made Acadian-style with chunks of pork and potato.

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Danny and Chuck have a PEI breakfast with Robert Pendergast (center).

“Bread, mussels — it’s a PEI breakfast, no?” says Chuck. Danny offers to whip up a fast hollandaise in the trailer, while Chuck gets started on the mussels. The rule of thumb when cooking mussels is that they should be closed (or at least, close when you tap them.) Scrub them clean with a brush (no soap, obviously, says Chuck) and steam them in an inch and a half of seawater in a large pot with the lid closed for a few minutes.

See how Chuck and Danny make their Mussels Benedict:

For a classic hollandaise, Danny separates the eggs, using just the yolks for the emulsion. Since there’s no room in the camper for a full standup blender, Danny is using an immersion hand blender, which home cooks can emulate. Slowly adding the melted butter until the mixture is emulsified and thickened, Danny adds his own twist: white balsamic vinegar instead of the traditional lemon juice to complement the mussels with its sweetness. “This white balsamic is great and won’t change the colour of my hollandaise,” says Danny. A bit of salt and the hollandaise is ready to go.

Time to dig in — the chefs start popping the mussels out of the shells (and a few into their mouths while they’re working) and set them onto the bread. Their creation is finished with a healthy dollop of hollandaise, and a sprinkle of cayenne “for that extra little bit of spice to wake you up in the morning,” says Danny.

“Anybody who puts potato and bacon into their bread is okay with me,” says Chuck, taking a bite with a loud crunch.

“This is one of the best things I’ve eaten in a while,” says Pendergast.

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The sun sets on this road trip;  PEI is Chuck and Danny’s final destination.

Bring mussels to your table with 25 Marvelous Mussel Recipes or for more inspired Benedict ideas, check out 10 Brunch-Worthy Eggs Benedict Recipes for everything from devilled eggs to pizza. Get Chuck and Danny’s recipe for their PEI breakfast of champions here and be sure to check out their most bromantic moments from the road.

Missed the episode? Catch it online at Chuck & Danny’s Road Trip.

Chuck and Danny Get Schooled On Acadian Caviar

This week, Chuck’s got a family connection to the chefs’ destination: his grandfather hailed from New Brunswick, and his best food memories stem from out east. “When I was growing up, we’d always have lobster and oyster parties,” says Chuck. “It has a lot to do with my love of food.”

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Chuck and Danny’s million dollar view of the Bay of Fundy.

Danny’s also excited about their campgrounds at Fundy National Park (“How did we score this campsite?” he says, surveying the incredible view) as well as meeting the local artisans behind the products they cook with on a daily basis. “A lot of what we use in the restaurants back home is from New Brunswick, so it’s fun to come here and connect with the guys that are bringing us the ingredients that we love,” says Chuck.

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Caviar expert Cornel Ceapa talks to Danny and Chuck.

One of those producers, world renowned caviar expert from New Brunswick, Cornel Ceapa, founder and owner of Acadian Sturgeon and Caviar Inc., joins Chuck and Danny for breakfast — and he’s brought along a tasting of three caviars, an excellent start to the day. “He’s the king of caviar,” says Chuck. “He’s the doctor of caviar,” Danny corrects him, since Ceapa has a PhD in sturgeon studies.

Caviar can come from a variety of sources, but sturgeon eggs are particularly prized. Ceapa settled in New Brunswick — where sturgeon is native to the Saint John River — to farm it in captivity. “When you think of sturgeon, you think of Iran or Russia, not New Brunswick,” marvels Chuck.

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That’s not a surfboard — it’s a sturgeon skin! Ceapa shows Chuck and Danny how large a sturgeon can get.

Similar to cheese, caviar changes from day one to the end of its life cycle as it matures into different flavours. Ceapa prefers an aged caviar, so he’s brought along two young wild caviars (one week old and two months old) and a third one from aquaculture for the lucky chefs to compare.

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Ceapa walks Chuck and Danny through the finer points of enjoying caviar, with tips that you can use at home:

  • Caviar is delicate, so keep it on ice. Spoon a bit onto the back of your hand and tilt it to look at the shine, colour and shape.
  • Put it in your mouth and don’t swallow it right away — feel the eggs in your mouth and swirl it around a little bit to let the taste develop.
  • The taste will grow on you; the salt will be the first taste you register, as that is the first sensory element on the tip of your tongue. Then, the butteriness will build, as a base flavour, as the other tastes develop.

Acadian-Green-Caviar-Chuck-and-Danny

The two month caviar has more of a complex, ocean vibe, while the younger version is grassier, says Danny. Chuck prefers the feel of the eggs in the Acadian Green caviar from aquaculture, that has a vibrant dark green hue and slightly larger eggs with a nice shine, so they decide to use all three types in a classic egg-on-egg pairing: a caviar omelette.

Watch how Danny makes his omelette:

 

“Everybody has their own technique,” says Chuck, who is vigorous in his egg mixing. Chuck keeps the eggs constantly moving in an almost scramble, and then, instead of flipping the omelette out, uses a plate held over the pan to invert the omelette in one move — a method that home chefs may find less stressful.

Savouring their omelettes, topped with all three types of caviar, the chefs and Ceapa concede that these are “best omelettes I’ve ever had.” With the salty notes of the caviar playing counterpoint to the creamy eggs, the group finishes every bite of their caviar creations.

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Here’s the recipe for the Caviar Omelette.

“This has ruined omelettes for me for the rest of my life,” says Danny.

Caviar is a luxurious treat for breakfast (you’re so fancy Chuck and Danny!) and can make a dinner très special. Kick off dinner with an hors d’oeuvre like a devilled egg with caviar or a blini made from buckwheat flour (another Acadian ingredient) and topped with caviar and crème fraîche. For the main event, serve this impressive plate of sturgeon two-ways: seared sturgeon with nori and sturgeon caviar.

Missed the episode? Catch it online at Chuck and Danny’s Road Trip.

chuck-and-danny's-rouge-park-bacon

Chuck and Danny Bring Home the Bacon

After a few weeks in the wilderness, Chuck and Danny are heading back to the big city for some urban renewal, along with a few expert tips from Toronto chef Elia Herrera, who shares some of the flavours and recipes from her native Cordoba, Veracruz. As they munch on Elia’s rajas poblanos tacos, she points the chefs towards the best purveyors in Southern Ontario, where they’ll gather bacon, onions and hot sauce for a Mexican-inspired campsite feast.

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Chuck and Danny meet Chef Elia Herrera in Toronto.

At Frolic Acres Farm, the chefs meet Les and Terry Caswell to help them feed their prized pigs. The pigs’ feed is supplemented with buckwheat, which also gives the farm’s honey its buttery richness. The pigs roam the fields, rooting in the ground and playing with the  other animals on the farm, including the resident shaggy Scottish Highland cattle. “The flavour that you get from the pork is from what they eat outside,” says Terry. “It’s a fuller flavour.” Although Chuck and Danny have pork belly in mind to make porchetta, they’re tempted by the offer of maple-smoked bacon and pretend to mull it over — for almost a minute. “Yes, of course we want the maple-smoked bacon,” declares Chuck.

At Glen Rouge campground in Canada’s first urban national park, the chefs start assembling their bounty into a deluxe morning feast of maple-smoked breakfast burritos, made over the campfire with minimal fuss as a one-pan meal (someone’s got to do the dishes, after all). “That’s the thing about breakfast,” muses Danny. “People use four different pans, but if I could, I’d make the coffee in here, too.”

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Breakfast of champions: breakfast burritos with maple-smoked bacon.

The chefs start by crisping cubes of the maple-smoked bacon for a sweet and salty bite, then chop some onions they pulled from the ground at Willowtree Farm, where they learned to top and tail the locally grown alliums for market. “This is the smell of camping, right here,” says Danny. To top off their creation, and for an extra layer of velvety goodness, Chuck and Danny add in Oaxaca cheese — a semi-firm cow’s milk cheese with a squeaky texture — that will partially melt to bind the delicious ingredients together. Home cooks can substitute mozzarella and a sweeter-style smoked bacon (or make Chuck’s maple-glazed Big Time Bacon) if they want to try this playful take on bacon and eggs for an easy and hearty brunch or lunch.

Eager to dig in, the chefs wrap the mixture in tortillas — with a healthy sprinkling of some locally-made hot sauce they picked up from a roadside stand — and take a big bite. “The hot peppers aren’t hot at all,” deadpans Danny, whose bravado is interrupted with a coughing fit. “That’s going to wake me up.” Good thing he has the perfect antidote on hand: a glass of creamy horchata (a sweetened rice drink) made with the Caswell’s honey and the wild rice that the chefs gathered via canoe on Chemong Lake with James Whetung of Black Duck Wild Rice.

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Harvesting rice on Chemong Lake

Watch the recipe video on how to make Breakfast Burritos.

As they sip and savour their Mexican/Canadian fusion meal, Chuck thinks about how the region’s ingredients have fit in so well with their theme. “Celebrating two nations through food is pretty special,” he says.

For more of Chuck’s better-with-bacon recipes, check out his Bacon Roasted Potatoes, Mussels with Bacon and Rapini, or Cobb Salad.

Missed the episode? Catch it online at Chuck and Danny’s Road Trip.

Chuck And Danny Discover a Salty Paradise on Salt Spring Island

 All aboard the ferry to Salt Spring Island, as chefs Chuck Hughes and Danny Smiles head out to one of Canada’s premier growing destinations, 20 minutes off the coast of British Columbia.

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Brooke Winters, center, with Chefs Danny Smiles and Chuck Hughes

After meeting up with Brooke Winters, chef and owner of BNurtured Farm to Fork Food Trailer, to get the lay of the land, Chuck and Danny fall in love with the Salt Spring Island Saturday Market — in order to sell here, you have to have grown it, made it or raised it yourself — and immediately add it to their list of must-visit destinations in Canada.

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Chuck and Danny enjoying the vibes at the Salt Spring Island Farmers Market.

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Gorgeous vegetables from the Salt Spring Island Farmers Market

The island’s specialty is sea salt, which comes from evaporated sea water. Fleur de sel is made from the prized salt flakes that form on the top of the water during the evaporation process.

The chefs learn some salty language from local expert Philippe Marill, owner of Salt Spring Sea Salt. “As a chef, as a cook, you’re nothing without salt. It boosts the flavours in all your ingredients,” says Chuck. Fellow francophone, Philippe, who hails from Montpellier in southern France, teaches them his method for salting food: holding your hand high, sprinkle the salt, rubbing it between three fingers to crumble the flakes. “Don’t touch it on the plate,” he warns. “Accept the chaos — that’s what you want to create, a little roller coaster of taste and also, emotion.”

Chuck is impressed. “Philippe is deep,” he says.

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Chuck’s salt guru: Philippe Marril, owner of Salt Spring Sea Salt

The salt will be a big theme for the dinner — with five different flavours, including  jalapeno-lime and blackberry, it’ll be a saltapalooza, promises Chuck.

The menu is ambitious, with Philippe’s salt in every dish. To take the edge off of people’s appetites, guests roast salt sprinkled spot prawns over a campfire, while the chefs stay hard at work, packing a salt crust around ling cod (thanks to Chuck’s fishing prowess), and working on the pièce de résistance: lamb three ways. Chuck and Danny are more than up to the task as they prepare rack of lamb with garlic sea salt, lamb loin chops and thinly sliced barbecued lamb for lettuce wraps.

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Chuck and Danny’s grilled lamb chops with fresh herbs and lemon.

Danny shows how to make his smokey and creamy baba ghanoush.

 

A key component to their DIY lettuce bundles is a unique baba ghanoush, made Chuck and Danny style by placing the  eggplant directly onto the hot coals to pick up the smokey flavour and aroma. The chefs are using a few types of local eggplant, including a Turkish variety, from EcoReality Co-op — an organic permaculture farm in Salt Spring Island’s Fulford Valley — to lend a riot of colours, tastes and textures to the dish. Eggplants are widely varied in terms of bitterness, firmness, thickness of skin and number of seeds, and roasting them on a barbecue is a forgiving cooking method that allows home cooks to try an assortment of shapes and sizes. After roasting, the eggplants are covered with plastic wrap, which allows the steam to soften the flesh, making the eggplant skin easier to separate.

In the RV, Danny blends the eggplant with roasted garlic, tahini, cumin and Salt Spring’s smoked mesquite salt. Home cooks can steal Danny’s secret ingredient — a touch of plain yogurt — for a creamy consistency. “It’s almost like a cheat to add richness to it,” he says. A final drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of more salt to garnish, and the baba ghanoush is ready to pair with the lamb, lettuce and pickled garlic scapes for a sweet and savoury parcel.

Long after the salt celebrations come to a close, Chuck is still consumed with their new discoveries on Salt Spring Island. “I think you were even talking in your sleep about that salt,” teases Danny. “You’re obsessed with salt on this trip — it’s changed your life.”

Find out more about how sea salt is made.

Where to Find Chuck and Danny’s Favourite Canadian Ingredients

When it comes to shopping for ingredients, chefs are often looking for the same things as their customers: freshness, value (hey, restaurants have food costs, too), and local and sustainable products. Chefs Chuck Hughes and Danny Smiles spill their sourcing secrets, from their best spot for vegetables to some must-have Canadian libations.

  1. Organic Ocean Seafood

BC-Spot-Prawns
When Chuck and Danny aren’t able to catch spot prawns off the coast of Salt Spring Island, B.C., they get them from Organic Ocean Seafood. 

Sustainable seafood has been a hot topic among chefs for years now, and Chuck and Danny take this issue very seriously. At their Montreal hot spot Le Bremner, the chefs use West Coast seafood sourced from independent fishermen at Vancouver’s Organic Ocean Seafood. “They’re dope guys,” says Chuck. “They’re amazing and they have great product. We get mostly halibut, but also tuna and British Columbia spot prawns when they’re in season.”

Try using Canadian seafood in this Pan-seared B.C. Halibut and Spot Prawns with Morel, English Pea and Chorizo Ragoût.

2. Birri at Jean Talon Market

Jean Talon Marche
Jean Talon Market photo credit: Creative Commons/@mouses_motor

Jean Talon Market has been a Montreal institution since 1933, and local shoppers and chefs can be found prowling its aisles looking for the best local produce, baked goods, meats and other amazing eats. Chuck and Danny’s favourite place to stop is the Birri brothers’ family-run produce stall. “We have a lot of great markets in Montreal, but my favourite is Jean Talon, and Birri has some of the best vegetables there,” says Chuck. “I love to get cherry tomatoes, and tomatoes in general — we don’t use them all the time, but in the summer, when they’re good, we get them from Birri. They have a selection of fresh herbs, and their zucchini is phenomenal. A lot of our stuff in the restaurants come from them.”

Try this sweet and savoury recipe for Colourful Cherry Tomatoes, glazed with apple cider vinegar and maple syrup.

3.  Norman Hardie Winery 

Chuck-Hughes-Danny-Smiles-at-Norman-Hardie-Winery
Norman Hardie, centre, with Chuck and Danny

A former sommelier at the Four Seasons and a well-known champion of local product, winemaker Norman Hardie is no stranger to Canadian chefs from coast to coast. Chuck and Danny made a point to stop at his winery during their tour through Prince Edward County to snag some freshly made pizza from the wood-fired oven, and sip some of Norm’s chardonnay. “We’ve got to be proud of what he’s doing right now,” says Danny.

Watch Chuck and Danny scarf down some of Norm’s pizza, made with locally-produced water buffalo mozzarella, on the first episode of Chuck and Danny’s Road Trip.

4.  Walter Craft Caesar

the perfect caesar

Although the origin of the Caesar can be a hotly-contested issue, it’s safe to say that Canadians have claimed this cocktail for their own, spiking it with everything from chicken wings to grilled cheese. Chuck likes the all-natural Caesar mix from Walter Craft Caesar, a locally produced, small-batch, ready-made mix that’s even on the Ocean Wise partner list for approved suppliers. “Their Caesar mix is good stuff,” says Chuck.

Try this recipe for a classic version of the Caesar, perfect your mixing technique with this infographic, or take a cue from Chuck and top your libation with a snow crab claw for an ultra-luxe finish.

Discover Chuck and Danny’s Must-Visit Canadian Destinations.

Figs

Fun Ways to Eat Fresh Figs with Chuck and Danny

It’s a day of land and sea ahead as Chuck and Danny wheel into Vancouver Island. Briny, spiny sea urchins and 100-foot bull kelp seaweed pulled fresh from the ocean are saline superstars of tonight’s feast, but the chefs are thinking sweet thoughts for their morning repast — and for that, they head off to find fabulous, fresh figs.

Figs-on-a-Tree

Figs ripe for the plucking on ALM Organic Farm, Vancouver Island.

Within walking distance of their campsite at Goldstream Provincial Park, Chuck and Danny discover Mary Alice Johnson’s ALM Organic Farm , which operates year-round and has 15 acres of fruits, vegetables and flowers. Mary Alice is eager to show Chuck — who has never eaten a fig just off the tree — how to pick ripe figs off her precious plants. “When they’ve got a shine on, they’re ready. You don’t want to tear them at the top, so just give them a twist,” she advises. Sampling these “fruits of the gods”, the chefs are surprised by the texture and sweetness of the organic figs. “Usually the figs that you get are wet on the inside, but these are drier, with distinct pulp and are so tasty,” says Danny. Although quite perishable and easily bruised, this versatile B.C.-grown fruit is simple to use in a multitude of ways: fresh, dried, roasted, candied, preserved, paired with prosciutto or added to baked goods.

Chuck Hughes and Danny Smiles

Not far from the tree, Chuck and Danny get ready to whisk up a batch of camping-style cardamom fig muffins to give to Mary Alice, pressing their trusty barbecue into service. They gather eggs from the happy hens at Jesse and Evelyn Pereira’s local farm Terra Nossa, and are using a few unexpected ingredients — cardamom, orange, mint and almond flour — for a unique twist on a breakfast staple. “The figs will add that floral, honey flavour,” says Danny, who adds chopped figs to the batter and places halved figs on top. All that fruit keeps everything moist, with a finished texture in between a cake and a muffin. Home cooks looking to make this recipe without a muffin tin can borrow a technique from the chefs by pouring the batter into ramekins, then placing them into the centre of a preheated barbecue with a closed top, which works as a makeshift oven. Served with creme fraîche and drizzled with dark buckwheat honey, these beautiful baked goods will be the star of your table, whether at home or to start out an outdoor adventure.

Cardamom Fig Muffins

Danny Smiles whipped up these fig muffins spiced with cardamom.

“This is the part of camping that I love,” says Chuck. “You may not have everything, but what you do have, you use in a unique way, so maybe you’ll discover something new.”

For more fun with figs, check out Chuck Hughes’ Sticky Fig Pudding With Candied Fresh Figs, Christine Cushing’s Fig and Armagnac Preserves, or Laura Calder’s Pistachio-Stuffed Figs.

Missed the episode? Catch it online at Chuck and Danny’s Road Trip.

Watch the recipe video below to learn how to make Cardamom Fig Muffins.

Chuck and Danny’s Guide to Cooking with Sumac

After a long day on the road in Hastings and Prince Edward Country, chefs Chuck Hughes and Danny Smiles set out to create a succulent feast from the bounty of local Ontario ingredients they’ve gathered.

After foraging for wild juniper,  harvesting local beets and squash and securing tender buffalo mozzarella, plus a bone-on tomahawk ribeye roast,  the pressure’s on to create a campfire feast for the local farmers and purveyors.

With the help of a custom-made barbecue grill on loan from Enright Cattle Company, they’ve got the perfect vehicle to cook the 43lb ribeye roast. Sounds impressive, but the menu doesn’t end there. They’re also roasting Golden Nugget Cups, candy-sweet squash from Earth Haven Farms, halved and stuffed with Ontario buffalo mozzarella (a gift from winemaker Norman Hardie.) The squash holds another local secret: sumac foraged from chef and local resident Justin Cournoyer’s back woods.

This citrus-like star ingredient is widely used in Middle Eastern cuisine, which is why the chefs were surprised to find it growing in the wild in Ontario.

chuck-hughes-danny-smiles-golden-nugget-cups
Chuck and Danny’s sumac-spiced golden nugget squash cups. 

Neither Danny or Chuck are strangers to the flowering plant: Danny uses it in his homemade za’atar mix with sesame seeds and thyme, and it’s part of Chuck’s arsenal at his restaurants as a citrus substitute. “It’s like a Canadian lemon,” says Chuck.

Chuck-Hughes-Danny-Smiles-Foraging-Sumac

Justin teaches them how to find the best plant by looking for a vibrant red hue in the berries, and to store it by drying it whole in the sun and making a powder, which can be used to braise beef or put on raw bread.

Chuck-Hughes-Holding-Suamc

Chuck and Danny use their collected sumac to sprinkle on the golden nugget squash, tempering its sweetness with a slight pucker. The cups rest just above the coals, collecting the succulent drippings from a 43 lb. bone-in tomahawk style side of beef rubbed and spritzed with juniper, and juniper branches are tossed onto the fire, creating fragrant smoke. The food’s so good, even a slight drizzle can’t dampen the mood, and the feast goes on under the stars for hours.

Chuck-Hughes-Danny-Smiles-Cooking-Dinner-PEC
Chuck and Danny begin cooking the bone on tomahawk ribeye roast hours before their guests arrive.

Home cooks can take a walk on the wild side with sumac in their own kitchens. In the warmer months, ground sumac gives flavoured butter an extra kick, lending a slight tartness to balance out summer-sweet corn on the cob. Paired with juniper, sumac steeped in tea and poured over wild Canadian blueberries from British Columbia makes for a spread-worthy preserve to liven up breakfast at home or the cottage. And for lazy nights any time of year, a potent sumac infused potion, sweetened with maple syrup, uses whole sumac clusters — combine it with vodka for a Canadiana martini, a true sweet and sour sipper.

Missed the episode? Catch it online at Chuck & Danny’s Road Trip.
Watch video below to learn more about sumac.

Celery Soup

7 Ways to Make Your Soups Creamy Without Dairy

During winter’s bitter, blustery days, a warming pot of soup is top of mind. If you’re craving a rich and comforting soup without adding the heaviness of cream, you’ve got plenty of options in your crisper or pantry. It’s time to think outside the box (or carton) with these seven easy, dairy-free thickeners.

Vegan Cream of Celery Soup

Creamy soups, like this vegan cream of celery soup, don’t have to be loaded with fat or heavy cream.

1. In A Slurry
When it comes down to it, some creamy soups are just white sauces with more liquid added. Building a roux from flour and butter (or margarine), cooking for a few minutes to remove the raw flour flavour, and adding chicken or vegetable stock will give you a sturdy soup without a whisper of cream. Cornstarch, on the other hand, is mixed with a few tablespoons of liquid and then stirred into the soup after it has come to a boil. Either way, the tricks you use to thicken a gravy — flour pastes, cornstarch slurries or even add-ins such as arrowroot or tapioca — can give your soup a thicker mouth feel.

2. Koo Koo For Coconuts 
For creaminess without cream, full-fat coconut milk will add a luscious sheen and body to your broth (you can use low-fat if you must, but it won’t give you as much richness). In Thai cuisine, coconut milk is added to flavourful curry pastes to produce creamy soups that pack a punch, such as this Thai Coconut Curry Corn Soup. If coconuts aren’t your thing, try subbing in soy or nut milk instead, although your soup will be a little thinner in consistency.

3. Against The Grains
Anyone who has ever made a Chinese congee knows the thickening power of rice — absorbing liquid and releasing starch to add a velvety texture when cooked. Add half a cup of rice at the beginning of the simmering period for your soup, and blend when the grains have plumped out. Pressed for time? Try using quick cooking rice instead to shorten the simmering time needed.

4. The Power Of Spuds
Don’t forget the humble potato — adding just one can add significant body and creaminess to your soup. Peel your spud if you desire, or leave it unpeeled and well scrubbed if you’re pureeing the soup afterwards. Just be warned that unless you’re using a full blender, you may end up with visible bits of potato skin sprinkled throughout. A smaller dice or thin slices will help the potato break down quicker in the boiling liquid. Sweet potato or yam can also be used, but keep in mind it will affect the colour of your finished product. You can also raid the fridge for yesterday’s mashed potatoes, leftover potato soup or baked sweet potatoes for a head start.

5. Back To Your Roots
Don’t stop at potatoes — chopped root vegetables, such as parsnips, turnips, rutabaga or carrots, all make economical and easy ways to add velvety texture. Beyond the basics, Jerusalem artichokes or sunchokes, taro or water chestnuts can also be cooked and puréed for body. Try  sneaking in some cauliflower or broccoli for some added vegetable goodness.

6. In A Nutshell
Soft nuts, such as cashews, add a creamy texture when soaked, such as in this vegan cream of celery soup. Nuts can be pre-soaked the night before, or cooked directly in simmering liquid to soften before blending.

7. Check Your Pulses
White beans, such as cannelloni, release a starchiness when cooked that will taste creamy on the palate without providing a dominant flavour. Soak and cook your own, or open a can for convenience, if you desire. Chickpeas or lentils, on the other hand, will impact the taste of your finished soup, but also provide a hearty helping, especially when paired with salty pancetta or bacon.

Looking for comforting soup recipes? Try one of these 21 Noodle Soups to Slurp Up This Winter.

Chicken pie

5 Easy Ways to Make Freezer Foods Gourmet

Growing up, frozen foods were more of an exotic novelty rather than the norm in our household. Nonetheless, when the occasional packaged or boxed item made it on to the table, my mother would never have dreamed of heating and serving it without an added flourish. Canned tomato soup would get extra grindings of black pepper, a dollop of Worcestershire sauce and a poached egg, and even humble packaged ramen noodles were always garnished with roasted pork goodness in the form of char siu (sometimes home made), steamed greens and eggs, and the noodles were cooked separately to avoid added starchiness in the broth.

Now, in my own kitchen, I follow the same principles on those nights when even takeout seems too complicated. Here are five tips to get the best out of your freezer forays to turn those frosty treats into gourmet goodies.

Chicken Pot Pie

1. Think fresh
Add fresh ingredients, whether a sprinkling of garden herbs, some chopped tomatoes or even a squeeze of citrus to take away that freezer aroma from your frozen lasagna or cannelloni. A quick perusal of your crisper and a couple of minutes with a knife will give you a myriad of choices: think hot or sweet peppers, green onions or zucchini for crunch.

2. Texture contrasts
It’s a sad, but true; the freezer can bring out the worst in foods in terms of texture, making things soggy, mushy or, in the worst case, slightly freezer burned. A crunchy topping such as chopped nuts, coconut, bacon or panko crumbs sauteed with garlic and butter can make a huge difference to that creamy casserole or tikka masala chicken. If your entrée of choice is crispy, such as a freezer pizza, think of adding a creamy element before tossing it in the oven, whether it’s fresh mozzarella or even an egg cracked (gently!) on top.

3. Sweet and sour
A little splash of acid can brighten up a frozen stew or hearty pasta main: red wine or sherry vinegar will add a piquant touch. If a marinara or tomato-based sauce is too acidic, a basil purée or even a tiny bit of sugar will help balance it out. For a final flourish, pour on a touch of luxury with a good olive oil or some truffle oil.

4. Get saucy
Lean proteins, such as chicken, turkey, shrimp or fish, or frozen vegetables such as edamame or peas can be eaten by themselves, but why not give them the benefit of a simple sauce? For a go-to favourite, try Laura Calder’s Basic Béchamel Sauce, which can be the foundation for herbs, cheese, Dijon mustard or other flavourings. Or, layer your proteins or vegetables over rice and make your own topping with ponzu or soy sauce, sesame oil, hot sauce, rice wine vinegar or whatever you pull out of your fridge door. For bite-sized morsels such as chicken nuggets, those items can be combined in different proportions or added to mayonnaise to make your own dip creation.

5. Add starch
Need to make a meal? Add pasta, rice or noodles — or why not whip up a batch of biscuits to drop onto your frozen stew or casserole to add some starch? Alternatively, you can combine freezer foods such as frozen pie crust and creamy chicken a la king with fresh chopped vegetables, to make a “homemade” pot pie. For starchy side dishes such as macaroni and cheese or cheese pierogies, make them into an entrée by adding fresh or frozen vegetables and flavour-packed toppings such as fried bacon, shallots or onions.

Inspired to see your freezer in a new light? Try 12 Make-Ahead Meals You Can Freeze, stock your freezer according to our 11 Delicious Ways to Use Freezer-Friendly Foods, and make the most of your space with 20 Life-Changing Freezer Hacks.

Homemade Hot Sauce

Turn up the Heat with Homemade Hot Sauce

As the weather gets cooler, it’s time to crank up the heat in the kitchen. From the fiery flames of Caribbean pepper sauce to the thick red sauces found across Asia such as gochujang and sriracha, the world is truly your pepper. Here are the best ways to work with chiles, and a simple home-style Mexican hot sauce recipe to make your own sauce to suit your taste.

Finished-dish-LW

Heating Things Up
When it comes to chile peppers, it pays off to pay attention at the grocery store — similar looking peppers may have very different heat levels. A chile’s heat comes from its capsaicin concentration, and is measured on the Scoville scale, ranging from the mildly sweet bell pepper at zero, to over two million units for the searing ghost pepper (bhut jolokia) or the Carolina Reaper. The list of potential peppers around the world is lengthy, but some common peppers available in Canada include green jalapeños (in their smoked form, they become the ubiquitous chipotle), Thai bird peppers (tiny and extremely spicy), thin-skinned serrano chiles or milder green cubanelles. Habaneros and Scotch bonnets look very similar (they resemble rounded mini bell peppers) and, like many peppers, these cousins can increase in heat as they ripen from green to orange, red and yellow.

Chiles this spicy may be too hot to handle.

Chiles this spicy may be too hot to handle.
Leslie Wu

Safety First
When handling very hot chiles, it’s crucial to remember that the seeds, oils and residue can have adverse effects. Rubber gloves (or the thin medical kind sold in drugstores, which may be easier to navigate for those with smaller hands) are a wise precaution — avoid touching your eyes or face and keep your hands off of your phone until those gloves are removed. Remember that those oils can transfer as well, so use caution around children and pets. Work in a well-ventilated area with a range hood, and consider a mask, fan or open windows when roasting or frying chiles, as they may create vapors that can cause a burning sensation in your eyes and throat.

Filled with fear at the idea of a blazing, spicy sauce? Removing the seeds and the ribs (the white interior of the pepper) will go a long way in cutting the heat quotient, but keep a glass of milk or chocolate nearby when tasting this recipe in case your hot sauce is hotter than expected.

We’re going to start with a basic sauce adapted from a recipe from Chuck Hughes, and add flavours and textures as we go.

Home Style Hot Sauce

Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 30 minutes
Total:  45 minutes
Makes: 5 cups

Ingredients:
12 Scotch bonnet peppers (substitute for habaneros or a mix of Scotch bonnet and cayenne peppers)
2 onions, peeled and halved
6 cloves garlic, peeled
1 bunch cilantro, roughly chopped
1 cup white wine vinegar
Salt
Olive oil
1 orange (optional)
1 tsp sugar (optional)
2 to 3 tsp avocado oil (optional)

With this many chiles, this sauce will definitely have a spicy kick.

With this many chiles, this sauce will definitely have a spicy kick.
Leslie Wu

Directions:
1. Preheat oven to 400 °F. Remove seeds and ribs from chiles if desired (if leaving them whole, add a few punctures with a fork in each chile to avoid explosions in your oven). Lay chiles, onions and garlic on baking tray lined with parchment paper. Drizzle with olive oil and season with salt. Bake in the oven for about 30 minutes or until vegetables have a nice char. Remove stems from the chiles.

Roast chiles until they get a nice char on them to ensure the best flavour.

Roast chiles until they get a nice char on them to ensure the best flavour.
Leslie Wu

2. Transfer the vegetables into receptacle of food processor, and reduce into a coarse purée with cilantro through intermittent pulses. Can substitute cilantro for another leafy green herb such as parsley or basil for a delicious addition. Add vinegar and season with salt to taste.

As a home style hot sauce, be sure to leave your puree chunky, not smooth.

As a home style hot sauce, be sure to leave your puree chunky, not smooth.
Leslie Wu

3. For those who like the sweeter things in life, a fruity kick can be added to this sauce by stirring in zest and juice of one medium-sized navel orange (or more traditionally, a couple of limes) and 1 tsp sugar to counter the heat. Pouring a dollop (2 to 3 tsp) of avocado oil adds a rich texture and glisten to finished sauce.

4. Pour into sterilized containers for your fridge to add some heat to your everyday life.

This hot sauce will make enough to share with friends and family.

This hot sauce will make enough to share with friends and family.
Leslie Wu

Enjoy the fruits of your labour with chicharrones (pork cracklings), served with homemade tortilla chips, spooned into salsa, enchiladas or queso for some extra heat, used in a marinade for chicken, or even to add a spicy kick as a dip for sliced pineapple.

Looking for more heat? Here’s 10 Canadian Hot Sauces You Need to Try.

Halloween pumpkin

5 Tips to Make Your Halloween Pumpkins Last Longer

It’s the countdown to Halloween: the decorations are appropriately ghoulish and the kids are a quiver with anticipation of sugary excess. But wait — has the family Jack ‘o lantern gotten a bit too eerily rotten even for fright night? With a little bit of forethought, you can avoid a scare on Halloween with our five tips for putting your pumpkin’s best face forward this year.

Halloween Pumpkin

1. Choose Wisely
Even before the knives come out, starting with the freshest possible pumpkin is the best way to ensure longevity in your Jack o’ lantern. The best way to choose a pumpkin in the patch (or your local grocery store) is to look for plump and unblemished specimens with a vibrant orange colour and an intact stem. Avoid gourds that are mushy or have soft spots, indicating that spoilage is already occurring or will occur shortly.

2. The Power Of Procrastination 
Sometimes, it’s OK to leave some things to the last minute. Waiting until the day before Halloween (or the day of, if you’ve got the day off and are super ambitious) delays the start of the clock in terms of rot and decay. Rushed for time or trying to keep those costumes pristine? Consider using stickers, glue-on adornments and markers instead of — or to complement — the decorative cutting.

3. Keep It Clean
Making sure your hands  are clean when prepping your pumpkin will keep yesterday’s pudding out of the middle of your creation and inhibit mold. Also wipe down your surfaces as well as the outside of the pumpkin, and dry it thoroughly. A mild bleach solution, vinegar or lemon juice may help keep bacteria and fruit flies at bay. Scrape the inside of the pumpkin and remove all the gooey innards, and be sure to give it a wipe out as well.

4. Polished Presentation
To keep your pumpkin perfectly plump, you can use petroleum jelly or oil to coat the insides and cut edges and wrap the whole thing well (or rehydrate it with a quick soak before trick or treaters arrive, but be sure to drain it completely to avoid pumpkin puddles).

5. Think About Temperature
Pumpkins are like most people: happiest when it’s not too cold or too hot. Bring your pumpkin indoors if the weather falls below zero to avoid a cycle of freezing, thawing and rotting, but avoid making them too toasty lest they shrink. To prevent mold, keep them away from high humidity. If storing your gourd outside, concrete may add heat and the potential for spoilage, so consider giving it a cushy seat with a piece of cardboard until the big night.

Prefer to eat pumpkin? Try these 25 Tasty Pumpkin Desserts.