Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Going, Going, Gonzalez! Steve Gonzalez is sent packing on Ep 3 of Top Chef Canada

Episode 3 of Top Chef Canada, "From Vodka with Love," should have been called what's a zakuski? The Russian food concept seemed like a bit of a stumper to most of the Cheftestants. Previews for episode 3 revealed the zakuski challenge in addition to celebrity Dan Aykroyd. This formula would mean a few things to us and episode 3. An appearance of Aykroyd's, Crystal Head Vodka. A perfect opportunity to play ousted Chef, Rebekah Pearse's, Unofficial Top Chef Canada Drinking Game. The preparation of our very own Top Chef Canada zakuski feast.

TCC Zakuski: Note the Maple Leaf shot glasses
A bottle of Crystal Head Vodka will set you back $60 bucks. The product is not available in Ontario because the liquor board thought the bottle was just too cool. In our experience the premium vodka trend seems to be more about marketing, fancy bottles and little to do with taste. For a little over $20, think of the money you are saving for food, you get a bottle of Russia's finest, Stolichnaya or Moskovskaya. We have not tasted Crystal Head Vodka but judging from the ornate skull shaped bottle this is a great marketing campaign. The bottle is the perfect gift/keepsake for your Goth family member or friend. We have tasted quite a few premium vodkas, our fave being Poland's Chopin, but we highly recommend sticking with our Russian comrades, Stoli and Mosky. The Russian bottles might be less spectacular than the premium competition but their contents get the job done. In keeping with the skull theme we decided to dust off our plastic souvenir glasses from Treasure Island Casino in Las Vegas. In comparing our cheap souvenir glasses with the expensive Crystal Head Vodka bottle the word gimmick pops to mind.

In case you missed it zakuski is basically food (bites) and vodka. When doing a shot of vodka your bite acts as a chaser. Strong flavours, like dill pickle, cut through the taste of alcohol. Who wants to do shots on an empty stomach? I have seen Russian friends sniff a piece of bread after taking their shot. This ritual was explained as coming from times when money was tight with little budget for food.  I doubt this would fly with the Top Chef judges. The presentation and food items found on a zakuski platter are not unlike those found on a pikilia or antipasto plate. Obviously food and drink is not unique to Eastern European culture. Zakuski inspired platters are a great way of enjoying food and drink. There are so many cultures that follow this tradition you can enjoy bites and shots from around the world.

Dumplings, pirogies, piroshky, Russian Dim Sum here we come. Both Russian food stores that we visited sold kimchi. We do not want to get into an essay about the cultural exchanges between Korea and Russia but kimchi is a perfect item for any zakuski platter. The reason is simple Korean liquor, Soju, is consumed with pickles (Kimchi) so it is a natural accompaniment to vodka. How about Tequila? One Korean restaurant we go to uses pickled Jalapeños as part of their pickle and brine mix so why not? How about Sake and sushi as another way of mixing things up. Ever heard of the Kimchini Martini? This cocktail was created by Bobby Beaton of the legendary Montreal garage band the Gruesomes. One time when mixing martinis the tyrant of teen trash realized he had no garnish but he did have kimchi. A sliver of kimchi is not unlike a pearl onion but the spicy chilli adds some kick to your cocktail. We were a bit disappointed that the Top Chefs' dishes did not feature more shots or cocktails as part of the service since mixology is popular food fashion these days.

The full spread
Our zakuski buffet consisted of borscht with ushki (mini-tortellini). Moscow salami, cheese, prosciutto, it was in our fridge and Italian food has been very influential on Polish cuisine (remember the tortellini?). Polish Queen, Bona Sforza, was an Italian and had a major influence on Poland’s cuisine. Other items included fresh pickles, radishes, green apple, grapes, black bread and bagel pretzels. We also had coleslaw, zucchini salad, aubergine salad, potato salad (it had peas, carrots and ham), devilled eggs with caviar and fried smelts. Last but not least there was a meat pie and a second item that was like a potato pancake but stuffed with a meat filling (delicious). Of course sour cream and dill was used throughout as the main condiments.

With the exception of the prosciutto all items were purchased at Russian food stores in Montreal.
The Sprit of Europe
Ella's Deli, 5555 Westminster Avenue, in Cote-Saint Luc. A huge Russian grocery store with amazing baked goods, charcuterie and pre-prepared foods.

St-Petersbourg Russian Delicatessen, 5584-A Sherbrooke Street West
The St-Petersbourg operation is much smaller than Ella's so there is a bit more of a homemade feel to the pre-made dishes. 

Just across the street from St-Petersbourg, the corner of Girouard and Sherbrooke, there is a Wawel, Polish Deli. 

Chef Gonzalez was sent home in episode 3 of Top Chef Canada for his "bland" mini potato salad with bacon foam. We think the potato was rather fitting in an Eastern European themed menu.  We are very disappointed that we will not get to see more Gonzalez in the competition. We were really looking forward to seeing some great Latino food. There are so many Tex-Mex Canadian culinary crimes we were really hoping Gonzalez could show people  a thing or two about Latino food. Hopefully Gonzalez will stick to his mission as Canada’s Latino culinary ambassador. If you are interested in cooking Latino food we have tested a few of the recipes on Rick Bayless’ website.  The Roasted Beet Salad with Red Onion Poblano with Lime, is a perfect zakuski dish.

In other Top Chef Canada news, Rebekah Pearse literally packed her knives after the airing of episode 2 where she was voted out of the competition. The Calgary Chef left her hometown for a summer position as a Pastry Chef in Kelowna, B.C., at Mission Hill Family Estate vineyards.
Next week on Top Chef Canada: 1,2,3, Look it's Susur Lee!

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