Learning to Be a Better Home Cook

All of my ingredients for panna cotta gathered on the counter.

All of my ingredients for panna cotta gathered on the counter.

A couple of years ago, inspired by a friend who cooks and talks about food like he’s a chef, as well as by the meals I’ve eaten at restaurants in Edmonton and during my travels, and from watching the more popular than ever Food Network, I decided that I want to better my own culinary skills. Cooking is a science and an art. A beautifully presented dish can bring joy to the eye, but you also need to know what can work together to create something pleasing to the palate.

I had every intention at the beginning of 2014 to learn a new recipe once a week (or perhaps every two or three) – actually take the time to make a delicious and balanced meal. But, now, more than 12 months later, that hadn’t really happened. However, after having enjoyed a year’s worth of amazing lunches and dinners at eateries across the city, I’m now feeling a little more motivated to go ahead with my initial idea. I want to be able to make myself, my family and my friends dishes that are as good as those at all the fine establishments I’ve had the opportunity to dine at.

Up until now I’ve been winging it and, don’t get me wrong, I’m not terrible in the kitchen. Everything I’ve ever cooked has been edible and even quite tasty, but I’d like to add variety by building on what I already know because I want what I put into my mouth to be healthy and nothing other than delectable.

But, where do I begin? My biggest dilemma is that I never have a fully stocked pantry of food or ingredients just lying around waiting to be molded into some spectacular meal. So, I have to be really proactive about planning ahead. I also think I have to slowly work my way towards dishes that require a little more technique.

My plan is to scour the cookbooks I’ve amassed and the Internet for what, I hope, will be a yearlong experiment. If I am able to keep up with it, I’ll do my best to chronicle the more successful attempts here on my blog.

And, should set recipes not work for me, I’ve told my parents that they can go the way of Chopped (or Chopped Canada) and bring me random baskets of various ingredients and I’ll take up the challenge of preparing them a meal that is fit for consumption. So, wish me luck!

In the meantime, I have dipped my toes in by learning how to make one of my favourite desserts. In no way does this recipe really help me add to my repertoire of main dishes, yet it is a handy one to have in my back pocket should I need to whip a little treat up with short notice.

Panna cotta is a traditional Italian “cooked cream” dessert. I typically order it at restaurants when I want something that is subtly sweet and feels relatively light. The ingredients and cooking method have changed over time, but, regardless, it’s a classic that is surprisingly simple to make. It can also be garnished a number of ways to bring in different flavours. Making this, you’ll feel like a proper dessert chef in no time!

Vanilla Panna Cotta*
6 servings
10 min. prep
6 hr. cooking time

7 g (1 pkg) unflavoured gelatin
1 1/2 cup milk (2% suggested)
1 cup half and half cream
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 tbsp vanilla extract
Fruit or cinnamon to garnish

1) Grease six 1/2 cup ramekins and set aside.

2) Pour milk into a small saucepan. Sprinkle the entire package of gelatin into the milk. Let stand for 1 minute.

3) Heat the milk and gelatin mixture on medium, making sure to stir until the gelatin is completely dissolved.

4) Add the cream, sugar and vanilla extract to the pan. Keep on medium heat so it remains hot, but not boiling (be very careful about this!). Stir occasionally until smooth.

5) Pour the liquid into the six ramekins. Let cool, then cover and chill for at least 6 hours or overnight.

6) Once set, you can slide the panna cotta out of the ramekin and serve in a bowl or on a plate. You can also opt to serve it in the ramekin. Top with fruit, honey or a sprinkle of cinnamon.

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*Modified from Cook iPad app contributor Reizel Ayeras’s recipe.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: The Parlour Italian Kitchen & Bar

The living room-like entrance to The Parlour.

The living room-like entrance to The Parlour.

Century Hospitality Group‘s (@centuryhg) latest offering, The Parlour Italian Kitchen & Bar (@TheParlourEdm), has been open for a little over 10 months now. My first visit was with a friend prior to attending the Arcade Fire concert in August. We met up at her office and walked over to the restaurant through a blistering heat wave. Situated behind the Denny’s on 104 Avenue, it’s in a distinctive brick block that may have been an old warehouse, although its facade looks newer. A large vintage looking sign with lights along the border indicated we were in the right place.

The entrance to the building is to the side through the patio, which is fenced in to save diners from a view of the street or the parking lot. It’s spacious with tables set far enough apart to give a greater sense of privacy and enough umbrellas or shade to keep it a bit cooler during sweltering weather. As lovely as it would have been to sit outdoors, it was too hot for the both of us, so we decided to venture inside. As you walk in, you’re greeted by a welcoming mantle place that makes you feel at home. Obviously, we were still at a restaurant, but it is meant to seem casual, relaxed, comfortable and retro despite the patina of sleekness over the whole atmosphere. I loved it. The server took us to a booth in the far corner, giving us a view of the bar and the pizza oven as well as the vast expanse of the layout, which includes a second floor that has many larger booths that are good for groups.

Since it was a Monday, we chose to go with their all day happy hour special ($10 on any of their specialty pizzas and $5 for all wines or beers on tap). We each selected a pizza – my friend went with the Short Rib and I ordered the Truffle – and got a couple pints of beer.

As soon as the pizza was dropped off at our table, we immediately dug in, meaning I forgot to take photos right away. But, no matter! The pizza looked and smelled wonderful and upon taking our first bites, we were sold on the place. A friend told me that she thought the crust was too soft, but I didn’t think it was. The crust is perfect for folding. The truffle pizza was absolutely decadent. Topped with truffle salami, fior di latte, Parmesan, fresh thyme and shaved truffles, I was in heaven. While I wouldn’t pay the usual $25 price of the pie, I would gladly go back on a Monday or during happy hour to get it for more than half off, and I’ll bring people with me! The short rib pizza didn’t disappoint either. Coming with braised Alberta Beef short rib, fire-roasted Serrano peppers, shaved pecorino and EVOO, it had a good amount of heat coming through, great for those who appreciate some spice without losing their ability to taste anything else.

To finish off, we capped our dinner with a couple of desserts. My companion selected the Chocolate Torta, which I expected to be more like a layered cake, but it actually seemed akin to a slab of brownie. It was rich, dense and presented with berry coulis, strawberries and salted caramel gelato. The Banana Panna Cotta called my name and it was also different than what I had pictured in my mind. Most other panna cottas I have tried have been closer to custards, but this had a slightly more gelatin-like texture to it. The banana flavour was subtle and paired excellently with the salted Nutella ganache, candied hazelnuts and fresh berries. Particularly, I was glad that it was a lighter dish.

The staff were commendable – friendly and attentive – during our entire meal. I’ve heard mixed reviews from friends about the establishment, and I think it might get a bad rap for being a Century Hospitality Group restaurant, but I really enjoyed my food and my time there on this occasion, especially at these prices. I look forward to going back with friends and family. It’s just a nice, laid-back place to catch up with people and I like that I never felt rushed. Plus, I like the way they think there. The backs of our drink coasters said, “Age, like glasses of wine, should never be counted.” As I sat there chatting with my friend of 17 years, I certainly felt younger than 28!

The back of one of the drink coasters. It's a cute touch.

The back of one of the drink coasters. It’s a cute touch.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Corso 32

The front of the restaurant with the matte signage on the window.

The front of the restaurant with the matte signage on the window.

A few years ago, I still lived at home. My mother owned a shop downtown in what is now known as ATB Place and the two of us would carpool to work together. My first encounter with Corso 32 (@CORSO32) was on one of those rides as we cruised along Jasper Avenue. One day, I happened to be looking out the passenger window as we headed east, and I spotted a small tenant space with a window that had just been christened with the name ‘Corso 32’. Matte transferred signage was all that distinguished the soon-to-be open restaurant from everything else that vied for your attention on this street. As such, it seemed to get lost in the fervor and it took a while before I managed to point it out again.

Fast forward to 2014 and I still hadn’t visited what is arguably now the best restaurant in Edmonton. I had heard countless recommendations from food critics, bloggers and friends, but, for some reason, I just had not been there. Having started my quest to visit all the restaurants, cafes and farmer’s market booths listed on The Tomato‘s list of 100 best eats and drinks in Edmonton, I realized that, if I was to truly get the full experience of their list, I would need to eat at the establishment that has topped it for two consecutive years now.

Our table was near the back of the restaurant. As you can see, it is quite small.

Our table was near the back of the restaurant. As you can see, it is quite small.

Knowing that Corso 32 is very small and also often has to be booked far in advance, I looked into making a reservation with the restaurant. They utilize the handy Yelp SeatMe system, so I was able to search for available times using the computerized calendar. Only serving Wednesday to Sunday from 5pm to 11pm, I wanted to dine there after work, so I wouldn’t need to go out of my way to get there on a weekend, or have to kill an exorbitant amount of time between office hours and my meal, so I kept clicking on various dates until a 5:30 opening on Wednesday, October 8th popped up. Booked about a month and half in advance, it’s not a lie when people say that it is difficult to get a table there on short notice. Seeing as how I didn’t really care when I ate, just that I did not want to have dinner at 9pm in the evening, I was okay with this. A table for four (all I could get), I had my dining companions lined up and ready to eat with me.

The evening finally arrived, and being that it was fairly early in the evening, it wasn’t full by any means. I learned later that they give each table a two and a half hour dining limit, so they can be sure to fit in two seatings each night. Not aware of that, our meal ran a bit longer than the allotted time as we opted to try and wait until a friend who was running late could join us. In the end, we were starving, so we went ahead and ordered our food without her.

Two of us opted to quench our thirst with glasses of sparkling lemonade while my other friend drank a couple of craft beers. To begin, we all shared a full size bowl of the arancini. If you have not had arancini before, it’s basically risotto shaped into balls, breaded and fried. Corso’s arancini is filled with speck (a fatty bacon or pork fat), cabbage and Fontina cheese. The balls are then decorated with finely grated Parmesan cheese. The dish is rich with a somewhat smokey flavour and entirely indulgent, but so worth the calories. I actually meant for it to be part of my main meal, which I had planned to pair with my plate of fried short rib. Unfortunately, the arancini was so good that it disappeared before the other dish was placed in front of me.

I have a love affair with short rib. When it’s cooked properly, the meat falls off the bone and it is so tender that it practically melts in your mouth. The fried short rib antipasti at Corso was just that. Served with a side of crostini and topped with shaved pear and arugula salad, it was another winner. I actually mistook the pear for radish, probably because they garnished the dish with radish as well. But, I should have paid more attention and realized when the flavour profile of the salad was more sweet than peppery. At the last minute, I also decided to get the side of beets. Prepared with ‘agro dolce’ (sour sweet) sauce, salted ricotta and crushed pistachios, it was a great accompaniment to what was left of my meat. The portion was also quite large, so I ended up taking quite a bit home for lunch the next day.

My two dining companions that were there chose to go with pasta dishes, which are made in-house from scratch. One decided on the cavatelli, the other the ricotta agnolotti. I had a bite of each, and they were both delicious. The pasta shells of the ricotta agnolotti were thin and cooked perfectly. It was actually a much lighter dish because the ricotta is creamy, mild and soft in texture. Paired with the swiss chard from Sundog Farm (@sundogfarmer) and a thin butter sauce, it didn’t seem like it would be too filling. On the other hand, cavatelli is thick rolled pieces of pasta that were served in what tasted like a rose sauce with spicy pork and fennel sausage, broccoli rabe and Pecorino cheese. The pasta was toothsome as the sauce was velvety, the sausage added a slight heat, the rapini brought some crunch to the texture of the dish and a little bitterness and the cheese a bit of saltiness. As my friend put it, it was like the food was making love to her mouth. I told her I would likely paraphrase her!

Our fourth finally made it as we were about to order dessert. Thankfully, our server knew her and she happens to be a regular there. Otherwise, they might have shooed us out earlier to make room for the second coming of diners (I’m so sorry to the people who arrived and ended up having to be seated in their sister business, Bar Bricco (@BarBricco), next door, which I’m sure is lovely as well, but not what they expected).

Three of us opted for the chocolate torta to finish off our dinner. Presented with salty, candied hazelnuts, it had that sweet versus savoury combo that I love. Wonderful as it was, I think two of us could have shared and it would have been more than enough to satisfy us both. It’s not actually a huge dessert, yet it is incredibly decadent and I found myself “forcing” it down because I knew I couldn’t let any go to waste. One person decided to go with the vanilla panna cotta, which was made with vin cotto, honey grappa and pistachios. I did not taste it, but it looked yummy, too.

By the end of the evening, the restaurant was pretty much at capacity and so were we. I had been told so many things about the eatery in the last two years that I had become worried that my expectations were too high, but the restaurant proved me wrong. I understand why Corso 32 and Chef/Owner Daniel Costa have the reputation they do. The food is fantastic, and the establishment is a good representation of how far Edmonton’s food scene has come and where the city’s foodies hope it will continue to go. Will Corso 32 top my own list of E-Town’s best restaurants? You’ll have to wait and see.