To know Tanya is to love Tanya.
Tanya has that wonderful luminescent quality of brightening every space she enters. The mood changes for the better when Tanya walks into a room. Everyone wants to be around her; everyone wants to catch some of her vivacity for themselves.
I believe she has this effect because she genuinely loves people. And she often employs this quality by hosting fabulous parties and get-togethers. I have been the beneficiary of her hospitality many times and it’s always the best time. Whether it’s one of her famous Christmas dinner parties or an informal games night, you always leave Tanya’s home feeling merry. Part of it is that no matter what the occasion, Tanya has a casual way about her that puts you at ease. She loves to celebrate and that, invariably, requires the components of food and friendship.
Her foodie-ness isn’t shaped by snobbery. It’s born of a true appreciation of food and love of people.
So of course it was her idea that a lesson on appetizers wouldn’t be complete without friends to help us eat them! She asked me who we should have over.
I wanted to invite those who had given me an Operation: Recipe Swap lesson already – it would be a small way to repay them. Since my girls were helping with the prep, I also considered who they might like to come. Christa Ball and Lisa Bickle were no-brainers. I also took the opportunity to invite my friend Heather Wilson, whom I don’t get to see enough and whose two daughters are best friends with mine. It was hard to limit it. I wanted to invite everyone, but March Break activities meant that many people weren’t available.
While we prepared the food, we thought fondly of the friends who would be joining us.
Here are three more appetizers.
Garlic and Basil Stuffed Mushroom
1 1/2 lb. baby Portobello mushrooms – the bigger the better (or button mushrooms)
1 1/2 c. fresh whole wheat bread crumbs
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 medium red onion chopped
1 garlic clove pressed
3/4 teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons fresh parsley chopped
1/2 teaspoon basil
These mushrooms were Mallory’s baby. First she had to find 10 equal-sized mushrooms and wash them. HOW to wash them was an important first step.
Tan said, “You see a lot of people washing them under water or soaking them for 20 minutes, but what happens is that they get mushy if you put them under water too long. You’re going to run these under water for a few seconds and dust them off quickly in the water.”
This means the mushrooms retain firmness which is essential for the recipe as they are the holders for the appetizer. As Mallory washed them, she pulled out the stem, which created a hole. She kept the stem, which was chopped up into tiny pieces and mixed with the other ingredients above.
Everything should be chopped up super tiny and mixed so that it has the consistency of paste.
Tanya cooked them at 350 for about 10 minutes, enough to heat them through.
Salmon with Mango Salsa
Tanya’s Mango Salsa is a recipe she’s known for. It’s a favourite with her friends and it can be put on “all kinds of things.” At the time, I could only imagine salsa with tortilla chips, but learned from Tanya to open up my mind to other ideas like fish, in this case salmon, or chicken, maybe even eggs! Getting crazy now!
Tanya didn’t have a recipe per se, she’s so used to making it without one, but estimated the ingredients and measurements as follows:
1 large mango peeled and cubed
1/4 cup of red onion chopped finely
1/4 cup red peppers chopped finely
Fresh Cilantro chopped to be approx. 3 tablespoons
Juice of half of lime
1 tbsp of balsamic vinegar
1 tbsp of olive oil
a splash of orange juice if you have it
salt and pepper to taste
Tan said, “People can play with a little or a lot of cilantro. I like a lot. You can also add a little bit of heat by adding some very finely chopped jalapeno peppers. Mmmmm… very good.”
Cutting mangoes is obviously serious business. There is an off centre pit in the mango, so you supposedly can use the knife to find it then cut around it and then twist the two halves counter to each other with your hands. Or so they say. “I suck at cutting mangoes,” admitted Tan, “If you figure out a good way to cut one up, let me know.”
Mallory just started slicing away at the outer layers. “There’s a ton of waste with peeling mangoes. Get off as much as you can and cut it up into little cubes, small enough that it can go on a spoon.”
We added balsamic vinegar Tanya JUST HAPPENED to pick up from Italy. I coincidentally just read about balsamic vinegar in the Conde Nast Traveler, Book of Unforgettable Journeys. In one particular story from Italy, the writer, Patrick Symmes, enjoyed his excursion via his palate, tasting everything rural Italy had to offer. Balsamic vinegar was a common ingredient used for a variety of dishes:
The great appeal of these complex, wine-like vinegars – from vin aigre, or “bitter wine” in French – is the way they naturally accompany a diet heavy in fats, from olive oil to glistening slabs of Parma ham. The tradizionale [balsamic vinegar aged at least 12 years] are not mixed into dressings but are highlighted as a prime feature of the meal – dripped onto the finest cheeses or fried vegetables, used to stain vanilla ice cream or risotto on the plate, sprinkled on sweet strawberries with ground pepper to work strange alchemy.
We used fleur de sel in the salsa. Tan said, “The difference between regular salt and fleur de sel is that regular salt has that yucky iodine taste. They take that out. It’s fresher, but it’s still salt. If I’m cooking, I use sea salt. If I’m putting it in salad, raw, I use fleur de sel.”
I learned through a little more internet research that fleur de sel (flower of salt) is expensive, hand-harvested sea salt. It is produced by collecting the thin layer of salt that rises to the surface of shallow pools of seawater along the coast of France. It is also produced in Spain, Portugal, the UK and now in Canada, in Vancouver!
…Think of fleur de sel as almost a garnish or condiment. A few crystals of fleur de sel sprinkled over a dish right before serving add a burst of flavor, visual appeal and even texture.
Fleur de sel is very delicate and will quickly dissolve, so it really should be added to a dish immediately before serving. One interesting use of fleur de sel is sprinkling it on candies, for example caramels, or other sweet items, like creme brulee, which both heightens and contrasts the sweetness.
Then there was the cilantro. “Cilantro may sound fancy, but it’s the taste of salsa.”
Again, About.com helped me out, “Cilantro is an herb commonly found in Mexican dishes and salsas, and is sometimes referred to as Mexican parsley. It is actually related to coriander, which is the ground seed of the leafy cilantro plant.”
Do you get what’s going on here? We’re taking a trip around the world with our taste buds in one dish! Perhaps, for the foodie, it’s about the exploration.
But can you buy all these international ingredients at your local grocer? Tan says now you can. It used to be more of a specialty item, but these things are becoming more popular.
Tanya instructed Mallory to slice, not chop, the cilantro. “When you bruise it, you lose a bit of flavour.”
Mallory mixed, mixed and mixed the ingredients some more and Tanya hired her on the spot as “Mango Chef.”
It was Sophia’s turn to cook the salmon. We did it ahead of time because it doesn’t need to be hot to be served in this way.
“The biggest thing [when cooking salmon] is seasoning. Fish without seasoning is blawrgh. And seasoning just means, most times, salt and pepper. It makes all the difference.”
So we learned that you can make fish or chicken with JUST salt and pepper. “It’s great to be fancy, but that’s often good enough.”
Tanya added oil to the pan for Sophia. “Do you know how to tell if oil is hot? You can see it separating – you don’t want it to smoke – otherwise, it will go black. Watch for it to separate.”
The trick to cooking the salmon was not to flip it around. You watch for it to cook along the side, it turns light, until it’s about halfway up and then turn it over. On the flip side, you can feel the sponginess of the fish – It’s not ready if it’s mushy, but you don’t want it to feel like a rubber ball either – that’s overcooked.”
“Salmon is one of my favourite things. I could eat it every day,” said Tanya. And with that, in our halfway mark giddiness, we started singing, “salmon and bacon and mangoes and mushrooms… these are a few of our favourite things!”
All this was going on a spoon. This shed some light on a certain serving dish I’d seen but never used (never knew how to use). Just put the sliced salmon and mango on a spoon, put the spoon on your plate, and when ready, shovel it in your mouth!
Won Ton Tacos with Marlin and Spicy Thai Sauce
Some of the skills we’ve been learning are transferable to this dish, which is without a formal recipe.
Those won ton sheets we used for the cups, would be fried, instead of baked. We used coconut oil to fry them.
Now, are you aware of the press coconut oil has been getting these days? It’s the miracle ingredient! And everyone I know has been talking about this. Here are 101 Uses for Coconut Oil from wellnesmama.com. My faves are to de-frizz hair and reduce cellulite, the latter would be truly wondrous.
We put a nice big glob of the coconut oil into a small sauce pan until it liquified, then put in the won ton sheet till it the won ton had a solid, bubbly consistency (like an egg roll). Once we fished out the sheet, we folded them into a taco shape and let them cool/dry off.
This was by far the most fun task of the day. The girls both wanted to try it out, watching these sheets shrivel up and get spongy within 10 seconds.
In the meantime, I got to try my hand a frying marlin. I have never eaten marlin before. Tanya called it the “poor man’s tuna.” I’ve never bought a tuna steak, and Tanya couldn’t get any, so it would be marlin for us this time. Tanya said, “Any hearty, sliceable fish will do. Marlin, tuna, halibut.”
I used the same technique that Sophia used for the salmon: season with salt and pepper, cook one side, then the other. I practiced resourcefulness and suggested we use the leftover coconut oil from the won ton tacos. Yay me!
As I was frying, Tanya shared a little more of her joy of cooking, appetizers in particular:
I love appetizers. I love fancy dinners. Cooking a roast beef dinner is fine, but I like being creative. I like being able to try something at a restaurant and figure out how to do it. These [won ton tacos] are from the Keg. I had them and then figured out a way to do it.
I’m missing that creativity piece. All my figuring out so far is just how to do the basics. I haven’t gotten to the point where I can experiment with ingredients and techniques. Any joy I have experienced up to this point has been borrowed from my friends in our lessons. Eventually I hope to learn enough that I can start to experience the creativity of cooking on my own. For this lesson, however, I grasped it fully from Tanya, her zest for life translated through food.
Sophia finished the task: bean sprouts, marlin, sriracha sauce. Easy peasy.