Tools and Techniques – Raw Onions

Onions are one of the most versatile staples of our pantry. They make for a perfect base and a perfect condiment, either cooked or raw. For now we will be dealing with the raw onion. I’m sure it happens to everyone; you eat a dish, bite into some raw onion and feel its pungency linger throughout the entire day. There are two tricks I like to use to diminish its pungency but without giving up any of the flavor.

Let’s start with a Montreal classic: bagels and lox. I personally have an affinity for St-Viateur’s all dressed bagels. At home I serve it up with cream cheese (and it has to be Liberté …or your local creamiest of the cream cheeses is a must), lox overflowing the sides of the bagel, a mount full of capers, coarsely ground pepper, a drizzle of lemon infused olive oil (take out your best-est olive oil here) and thinly sliced red onion.

To tame the pungency of the red onion as a condiment, you’ll want to start by thinly slicing it. In a bowl cover it with salt; pour cold water over the onions to cover and mix until the salt is dissolved. Add a few cubes of ice and let the mixture sit for at least 20 minutes. Strain and pat dry the onions. Drop a few over the lox to complete this all dressed classic Montreal bagel. These onions are also great for salads, sandwiches, burgers…

Another way to soften the blow of post onion bad breath is to marinade the onion in some sort of acid like lemon or vinegar. This is the base for my famous guacamole. Yes, I said it, famous! You can ask any of my friends and family. The onion taming technique is described below in the recipe and makes a great base for other dishes like gazpacho.

Kristel’s Kitchen Guacamole

  • Two ripe avocados
  • One small onion
  • Two limes – juiced
  • One garlic clove – pressed
  • One tomato – seeded and chopped into a small dice
  • Small bunch of cilantro – chopped
  • 1/2 tablespoon Mexican spice blend – any generic grocery store mix works here, or make your own by combining equal parts of cumin, dried oregano, chili powder and paprika
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Splash of hot sauce – or as much as you or your guests can handle

Finely chop the onion. In a mixing bowl add the onion, the juice of one lime and a few pinches of salt. Mix it all together until the salt has dissolved and let sit for 20 minutes. At this point you can start mixing your guacamole. Scoop out the ripe avocado into the mixing bowl and using a fork mash it all up. Using a garlic press, crush one clove. Slice in half one tomato and using your thumb remove the seeds. Chop the tomato and add to the mixing bowl. I enjoy experimenting with different varieties of tomatoes but grape tomatoes give just the right amount of sweetness and they don’t need to be seeded. Gently mix all ingredients; careful, the tomatoes are delicate.

Mix in the Mexican spice blend and the hot sauce. I like playing around with different types of hot sauces and I usually use two kinds: a basic one to give a base of spice and one that adds a different flavor dimension, for example smokiness (think chipotle). This is the perfect opportunity to play around and wow your guests. If you have any fresh hot peppers on hand you can also add those into the mix (remember to use your latex gloves). Make sure to taste the guacamole and adjust the seasoning with pepper, salt, spice and perhaps even add more lime juice. Grab your favorite chips and dig in!


Mid-Week, Fish and Femmes


This summer I decided to host a dinner party with all my girl friends since I felt I never got to hang out with them as a group as often as I’d like. After too many cocktails, too much food and just enough laughter, the evening ended with us dancing in our lingerie to cheesy pop music… that’s what my better-half likes to imagine, but enough with his stereotypical male fantasies.

The night was a huge success and I vowed to host dinner for my girls at least once per season. Well, the fall is rapidly coming to an end and invitations for dinner still hadn’t been sent out. Tuesday afternoon I found out that my live-in love was heading out for dinner, drink and cigars, so the perfect opportunity came up to invite the gals over. I happened to be perusing the Food & Wine section of the Globe and Mail, so menu ideas came up almost instantaneously. I sent out an email to my Chicas de Mtl mailing list and within a couple of hours half of them could make it on such a short notice. Not bad for a last minute, mid-week dinner!

Thanks to Ms. Waverman’s Weekend Menu, my Indian inspired dinner for four was set: Indian spiced swordfish served on a bed of turmeric creamed spinach, with coconut-mint basmati rice.

There is no need for me to elaborate on Ms. Waverman’s recipes since I pretty much prepared the dishes following her instructions, with the exception of omitting the cauliflower in her rice pilaf recipe and adding some frozen peas. I suck at making rice. It sticks, it burns, it overcooks, undercooks, boils over, dries out; I don’t know what it is about this grain but it never seems to end up the way cook books describe it. I do not have a rice cooker, nor do I plan to buy one until I have a kitchen big enough to hold all sorts of small appliances, dishes, pantries, etc. Essentially what I want is a small house built around a large kitchen… should be simple enough to find right? But I am determined to get this rice thing under control and until I do I will follow instructions as best I can. As for her Spiced Halibut recipe, I did not use halibut since it was not available that day at my local grocery store. I settled on swordfish, which nicely manned up to the Indian spices. The creamed spinach, however, is a recipe of my own creation. I served the meal with my home-made fid chutney, a recipe I got from the LCBO’s Fall issue of the Food&Drink.

Turmeric Creamed Spinach

  • 2 cups fresh baby spinach leaves, coarsely chopped
  • ¼ cup sliced onion
  • 1 large clove of garlic, minced
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 1 tbsp coconut milk or cream
  • Salt and pepper to taste

The proportions indicated are for a single-person side dish. Repeat x number times, with x representing the number of people eating. Bring a large pan up to a medium heat, drizzle with oil, add the onions and garlic to sauté for a couple of minutes or until soft. Add the spinach leaves and coconut milk. This may seem like a lot of spinach but it amazes me every time how much they shrink after cooking. Cover and let the spinach leaves sweat and soften. Remove the cover, add the turmeric, salt and pepper to taste and give it a good stir. Once the spinach is soft and well coated with the coconut milk and turmeric mixture, it is ready to serve.

Fig Chutney PreservesDSCN0388

This recipe is taken directly from the LCBO’s Food&Drink magazine. If you want to keep it in glass jars then I suggest you follow standard canning instructions.

  • 375 g ripe figs (green or black), trimmed
  • 1 serrano chili pepper, split (I used an ancho chili)
  • 3 tbsp red wine vinegar (I used cider vinegar)
  • 1 tbsp brown sugar
  • 3 cloves
  • ½ tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 small onion, peeled and finely diced
  • 2 tsp finely grated ginger
  • l garlic clove, minced
  • ½ tsp yellow mustard seeds
  • ¼ tsp sea salt
  • ½ cup water

Cut the figs in half or quarters depending on size and place in a bowl with the chili pepper, vinegar, sugar, cloves and cinnamon; stir to mix. Cover and leave to marinate at room temperature for 6 hours or overnight. Remove the chili pepper and scrape out the seeds. Dice the chili finely and set aside.

In a saucepan over medium low heat, add the oil and the onion. Cook until soft but not coloured then add the chili, ginger, garlic, mustard seeds and salt. Cook stirring constantly until the seeds begin to pop. Add the figs, all the juices and the water. Cook stirring often, until the mixture is thick and the figs are soft, about 25 minutes. At this point you are ready to proceed with the preserving process by packing the chutney in hot sterilized glass jars.


Layla volunteered to bring dessert but in between a forgotten wallet and other daily mishaps, Jasmine came to the rescue. She made us a sweet mandarin cake, featured here. Though she claims it is the easiest cake, she still hasn’t shared her secret with us. Come on Jasmine, we’re all waiting! Hopefully she’ll get the hint and share the recipe with us.

Dinner was yet another success and the perfect mid-week break. I think it was just what we all needed to make it to the weekend!

N’Orleans, Indulgence and Gumbo


I know, I know, I’ve been MIA for the last week but I have a good excuse. Just over a week ago I was waking up in the Big Easy where I had met up with friends to celebrate All Hallows Eve. This trip had been booked for over a year and so was our Bed and Breakfast. Phillip, our innkeeper at the Royal Street Courtyard, made us feel welcome throughout our entire four night stay, and even made us feel like we were visiting a friend. Every day the dining room was open for a “continental breakfast”, our rooms attended to, beds turned down, towels changed and the outdoor hot tub available 24/7. He was definitely the host with the most! Not only did he make us feel at home but directed us to where the locals go.

After orientation and a quick shower following such a long day of flying, on Philip’s recommendation we landed at Adolfo’s Restaurant. Located on Frenchman between Royal and Chartres at the edge of the Faubourg Marigny, this Italian-Creole fusion restaurant was tucked into the second floor of a bar, yet had a neighborly feel to it. Veal, lamb and an assortment of fish reined the menu with their respective sauces. I chose the plat du jour – yes that is the dish of the day – grouper topped with ocean sauce, a trio of crawfish, shrimp and crab in a decadent Creole spiced cream sauce that smothered the fish, without overpowering it. The food at Adolfo’s set a high note for the rest of our stay but it really was their local home felt atmosphere and beyond courteous service that took it to the next level. After dinner, we meandered amongst the streets of the French Quarter, dropping into the various jazz clubs, sipped on Hurricanes which hit me like, umm well a hurricane. T’was the eve of Devil’s Night and locals with their drink in hand, already started prowling the streets in costume.

The next morning began our wake up ritual of coffee and a soak in the hot tub to ease ourselves into our day, before heading over to Schiro’s for lunch, another Philip suggestion. The special on Fridays at Schiro’s is the cat fish platter. Jay ordered Gumbo and fried oysters, Donna ordered hush-puppies and a panini, Jon ordered the crawfish sausage Po’boy, Stu and myself both had the Friday’s special, and being the close-knit group that we are the dishes were always communal. The oysters and the hush-puppies were the first dishes to come out. Having never eaten a cooked oyster, I was especially curious about tasting them. They were perfectly breaded and crunchy on the outside, and delightfully soft in the middle – cooked to perfection. The hush-puppies were also crunchy on the outside, nice and fluffy inside. The Gumbo was everything it should be: spicy and comforting. Then came the mains: the catfish was moist but crispy on the outside, served with potato salad which was just what one would expect but nothing more. The one bite of the Po’boy that I tasted was a heavenly messiness but the interesting point was the crawfish sausage – you do not eat that every day and of the four days we spent in N’Orleans it was the only one we’d seen as we perused various menus. We washed it all down with some Bloody Mary’s and set off for a day of touring. On top of offering a fantastic lunch, Schiro’s also keeps a store in the back, offering a variety of snacks, beers and liquors.

After walking through the French Market, Jackson Square and along the Mississippi, we headed to Café du Monde for a café au lait and a taste of their famous beignets. The perfect mid-afternoon snack; these fritters were coated in an avalanche of icing sugar really are as good as any guide says. We were lucky enough to show up in between crowds because every other time that I walked by, line-ups snaked around the block.

Dinner at le Père Antoine, located in the French Quarter at the corner of Royal and St-Ann’s, was beyond disappointing. I ordered the Creole sampler which included red beans and rice (usually Monday’s special anywhere you go in New Orleans), a pathetic shrimp Creole and a sad looking portion of jambalaya. The only good thing about that place is its location and our corner window table that was a prime spot for people watching. Overstuffed and unsatisfied, we all went for a much needed stroll but after witnessing the effervescence of Devil’s Night on Bourbon Street, we headed back to the B&B to rest up for Halloween.

Halloween day! It’s 11 am and we’re sitting at a Café/Bakery – yet another Phillip recommendation – where Jon really, really wanted to have the crab omelet. As I was savoring my shrimp étouffée and poached egg over organic grits, costumed ghouls and gals were already haunting the streets. My conclusion: I do not like grits; not saying they were bad tasting, I simply did not like them. I would have gladly enjoyed the rest of my dish served with only the perfectly baked biscuit it came with.

Being Halloween and all, we just had to visit the Lafayette cemeteries to get in the mood and explore these famed eerie gems. In the afternoon before heading back to the B&B to get dressed up, we hit up Turtle Bay located on Decatur Street, one of the main bar strips treaded by the locals. This pub has over twenty taps, eleven of which are reserved for local brews. The main brewery is Abita and they do standard ales, as well as more interesting mixes. Some of my favorite included the Southern Pecan, a nut-brown type of ale, and the Turbo Dog, a stout.

We had finally come to the pinnacle of the holiday. As we’re stepping out of our B&B for the night, a parade of Vikings comes strolling down Royal Street, making their way towards the French Quarter. We followed them and made our way to Bourbon Street, just because you have to see it at least once at its peak. So, Alice (Donna) and the Mad Hatter (Jay) ran into more replicas of themselves and surprisingly even shared a toast with Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum. Adam West (Stu) did not find his Robin but encountered endless Catwomen of all shapes, sizes and genders. Labyrinth’s David Bowie (Jon) only got recognized a couple of times but did not complain when a guy with sausage pizza came strolling nearby (think almost naked man with a pizza box around his waist where he keeps his sausage). As for Medusa (me), luckily, she did not have to turn anyone into stone. We ended up on Frenchmen Street, where the locals go and it was definitely the highlight of the night. An immense costumed block party with music, drinks and food included. The best things I ate during my entire stay were: first, skewered barbecued shrimp, hot off the grill that was flaring up somewhere in between Chartres and Royal Street; and second, the tacos and tamales from the overcrowded chip truck at the corner of Washington Square.

The next morning we headed to La Peniche for brunch. On our way there we witnessed the devastation of the previous night: broken bottles, plastic glasses scattered on the streets, empty food containers and a few people on their walk of shame… oh wait, there is no such thing as a walk of shame in N’Orleans! Brunch at La Peniche, though far from spectacular it offers good food and innovative creations. As for myself, I stuck to classic eggs Benedict. For anyone who knows me, I am picky about my hollandaise sauce. This one was almost comparable to mine and it’s nearly half inch thick piece of ham under the poached egg scored huge points in my book. Sadly when Jay and Donna went, they came face to face with the brunch rush, were grunted at and turned their heels at them. I guess timing was everything.

The rest of the day we walked along the Mississippi from the end of Frenchman, all the way to Canal Street. We took the ferry across the river to Algiers Point, noticed the Jazz walk of fame and went back to the “main land”. The art dealers of Jackson Square, the Mardi Gras Zulu exhibit at the Presbytère, the antique shops along Royal; then, slowly our stay was coming to an end. We tried to go to Central Grocery to taste their famous Muffuletta Sandwich only to realize that they were closed on Sundays and Mondays. For our last supper we headed to Olivier’s – a recommendation from the friendly bar maid at Turtle Bay. Olivier’s is considered by locals to be a great place for dinner and I can’t say that I disagree. Although the dressing for my appetizer salad was overpowered by its garlic only dressing, I thoroughly enjoyed my rabbit Creole. It was tender, succulent and spicy. Rarely have I had rabbit so well prepared. The night ended with a nightcap at a quiet bar on Pirate’s Alley. We said our goodnights and goodbyes, took one last wander through the Quarter back to our B&B, set the alarm for 5 am and before I knew it, I was unpacking and starting a load of laundry at home in Montreal.

Halloween down is the Big Easy is definitely worth revisiting, with its decorated balconies and houses, its haunted history, its eerily beautiful cemeteries and festive atmosphere. Although devastated from Katrina, the culture and its people seem to share a joie de vivre I have not experienced anywhere else… and come on folks, I am living in Montreal!  There are a few things that I wanted to do or try, such as tasting a true Sazerac, chowing down a Muffuletta sandwich from Central Grocery, savouring char grilled oysters, eating at Gallatoire’s and touring the Plantations.

Surprisingly, of all the things I’d eaten during my stay there is one that struck me and that is Gumbo. Maybe it’s the diverse origin of this dish (French, Spanish, Native American, Creole vs. Cajun), perhaps it’s the versatility that can include anything but the kitchen fridge, or more conceivably a bit of both along its long-standing history. In any case, I fell in love with it, bought a spice blend, brought it home and stirred-up some Gumbo of my own.


Kristel’s Kitchen Gumbo

  • Two andouille sausages or spicy smoked sausage of your choice
  • One medium onion, chopped
  • One garlic clove, chopped
  • Two tbsp of oil
  • Two tbsp of flour
  • Two cups of bell peppers, chopped
  • Two cups of celery, chopped
  • Two cups of carrots chopped
  • One large can of diced tomatoes
  • Chicken broth, three times the amount of the can of diced tomatoes
  • Four tbsp of Gumbo seasoning (I used Andy Roo’s Creole Gumbo Seasoning)
  • Two bay leaves
  • Shrimp of your choice, optional
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Hot sauce to taste
  • Cooked rice to serve

In a large pot, brown the sausages on all sides. Remove from pot and set aside. Add the oil to sauté the onions and garlic. When soft and translucent add the flour. Stir together and allow the mixture to cook for a couple of minutes. This mixture is called a roux and this is what will help thicken the Gumbo. Add the bell peppers, celery, carrots, diced tomatoes, Gumbo seasoning, bay leaves and stir together. Using the empty can of diced tomatoes as measurement, add three parts of chicken broth. Bring to a simmer and cook for about 45 minutes. While the Gumbo is simmering, slice the sausage and peel the shrimp. After 45 minutes, adjust seasoning with salt, pepper and/or hot sauce, add the shrimp and sausage. Let the Gumbo simmer for another 10 minutes or until the shrimp is cooked through. Serve the Gumbo with cooked rice.