Thursday, May 25, 2017

Savour Outdoor Entertaining With A Mexican Fiesta...

Summer weather is around the corner (I just know it) and once again, it'll be time to move outdoors to enjoy entertaining on the deck. If lounging on the patio, sipping margarita, swaying your hip to latin beats with animated conversations, enticing aromas and gorgeous foods gets your juices going, then there is nothing like hosting a Mexican Fiesta. Fresh off my vacation in Mayan Riviera, I want to transport that warm hospitality, vibrant colours and fresh flavours into my al fresco party, and we're doing it sizzling BBQ tacos buffet-style. Right off the bat, there's hidden potential in your Q for cooking foods with a Mexican accent.

Before getting into some ideas for menu planning, how do I envision the mood for una fiesta latina? I think of things that make my guests feel welcome-- to make them feel that they are where they should be at that time. Time seems to stand still so moments are savoured. Where they can have fun, and discover new things, such as culture and tastes. I love having people take part to customize their own foods and beverages, engaging through curiosity and discovery to learn something about Mexico's unique flavours. As I walk you through, I share inspirational shots that bring my vision to life.

Without question, the main attraction would certainly be the table setting. A gorgeous picturesque spread creates the stage for interactive fun that stimulates the senses. I imagine a tablescape that is colourfully dressed, but not overly while allowing Mexico's cultural trademarks and fresh ingredients to shine. Wood patioware throughout is aesthetically fitting. A natural rustic dining table sets the scene, reminiscent of the bench tables you eat on in a traditional Mexican cantina. Wooden dining chairs are simply adorned with a bright solid coloured cushion.



The middle is decorated with one large or multiple colourful woven Mexican throw rug(s) loosely placed (not covering entirely) to accent against the beauty of the natural table. The rug is elevated by milk crates and sturdy boxes/bottom-up pails of different height underneath to create a tiered dimensional tablescape. This image captures how the thicker material of the rug holds its shape to the ruffling and fluffing to create layered textural interest.


For the showcase centrepiece, the rim of a large colourful sombrero serves as a salsa bar of a variety for scooping tortilla chips. Guacamole is served to the side in a stone bowl or traditional volcanic rock mortar & pestle bowl. Prepared taco toppings and condiments are set up in terracotta, wooden or glass bowls (to show-off the ingredients) that dot around the rug, with the grilled meats/seafood to be served on platters set on the wooden table. Whole limes, whole garlic bulbs and lima beans scatter around the folds of the rug to create additional texture. Instead of flowers, cuisine herbs such as bunches of fresh cilantro, oregano and mint are placed into small tin buckets or Mexican-themed tin food cans as decorative planters. Make the most of the tiered centre by arranging so vessels of food offer dimension and like colours are not together. It can easily turn into a work of art that stuns. 



Place setting is simple with plates and napkins that pops of pretty colour. For kids and adults alike, a side table could be set up to make fun DIY maracas. Side tables could be used for appetizers and putting down drinks. Speaking of drinks, what's a Mexican party without booze? Aside from serving a pitcher of sangria and frosty Mexican beer on ice, set up a DIY margarita bar. For frozen lemon-lime margaritas, put out a bucket of ice, 3 cups fresh lime juice, a large bottle of tequila, a bottle of Grand Marnier, and 4 pints frozen lemon sorbet. To make 3 margaritas, blend 12 ice cubes, 6 Tbsp. lime juice, 1/2 cup tequila, and 2 Tbsp. Grand Marnier in blender until slushy. Blend in 1 cup frozen sorbet (keep tub submerged in bucket of ice). Pour into salt-rimmed glasses. For non-alcoholic drinks, try Mexico's chic Jarritos' real fruit bottled sodas like guava, lime, tamarind and mango. 

Don't forget to turn up some latin rhythms to groove and sway to (lately reggaeton-pop Despacito has been on my playlist, and music from Buena Vista Social Club is a classic fave).



Now onto some thoughts on menu planning. Organization is key: write lists and refer to them as needed. Try to prepare as much as you can ahead of time. Advance preparation alleviates a lot of last-minute stress and lets you enjoy the fiesta. Appetizers set the scene for your fiesta. Make them varied, colourful and flavourful. Try cool ones such as classic guacamole, seafood ceviches, and gazpacho soup in shot glasses. Make a spicy nuts and seeds mix with pecans which are native to Mexico as are a variety of pumpkin seeds. Large bowls of fresh Mexican Salad with Lime Dressing and a heartier Mexican Pinto Beans could serve as suggested sides.


DIY tacos are fun! It livens up a get together by offering an assortment of delicious taco fillings, grill-warmed tortillas and a wide variety of salsas- that combines vegetables, tropical fruits (pineapple and mango are popular) or sweet and savoury in various piquancy to create a customized meal. Try fillings such as char-grilled fish, spicy BBQ shrimp with pico de gallo, carne asada (beef), and tacos al pastor cooked over the grill. Throw in some corn on the cob too and brush with lime zest-infused butter. Slice meats to bite-size pieces and add a name tag to identify the dish. Time the longer-to-cook items and warm cooked things (use your indoor oven if needed) and set it all out at once. Invite everyone to go gangbusters at the topping table to create tacos to their hearts' desire. Aside from the usual topping suspects, add some lesser-known specialty ingredients indigenous to Mexican cuisine such as chopped pickled nopales, roasted poblanos and queso cheese to try something new. 

Simply serve cut-up papaya with a squeeze of lime as well as pineapple (add chopped mint and sea salt), mangoes and strawberries for a fresh light finish to a meal full of fresh flavours.

Summer can't come fast enough! La fiesta latina is sunshine, electricity and fabulous flavours! When your guests are happy, and you are happy, then it's a success.  The reciprocated smiles will say it all. :D :D :D



I was inspired by the outdoor dining furniture selection at to write a post on my vision for an outdoor food gathering. The information I share is completely my opinion, as are all my posts.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Food Revolution Kids Can Cook Brunch...

It's that time of year I always look forward to... Food Revolution Day, an annual themed good and real food celebration taking place world-wide the third Friday in May. However, the official Food Revolution Day on a global scale has been postponed until later this year. The UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, called a snap general election to take place on June 8th, just two weeks after our intended Food Revolution Day. For many political and press reasons, we know this timing isn’t right to have the impact we (ambassadors) want and for Jamie Oliver to make big noise about child obesity policies that best benefit children's health. As our Food Revolution campaign is year-round, many of us still held events while postponing some others until we get the new date. 

For me, while I do enjoy large events to have a greater reach with our universal message (eat real food, get back in the kitchen to cook and food education), I believe intimate, smaller-scale ones are just as if not more impactful. There is better engagement and personable interaction which is harder to come by in a big event. This year, I'm deferring a few school events and held a kids cooking session with my three young boys and their cousins. They did everything from washing, prepping, slicing, chopping, and cooking for the most part with us parents supervising. We made brunch with recipes inspired by Jamie Oliver-- blueberry pancakes and customized omelets. Instead of fruit juice or vitamin water which are loaded with sugar and other stuff, we made real fruit-infused water for a refreshing drink. Now let the cook-off begin! :D

I asked the kids, "What are you cooking with today?"

Instructions first. Ready set go... 


Chopping and slicing...

IKEA has an amazing SMABIT kid-friendly knife and peeler set.

These five-year old cousins were in charge of measuring, pouring and whisking up blueberry pancakes.

It's all about breaking the eggs and whisking. Taking turns to make a big batch!

Wiping the earth off mushrooms, while explaining why you must never wash them-- 
gets water-logged that diminishes flavour and texture. The adults were surprised at this too.

It's a whole family affair!

How to cook pancakes...

Lay cooked pancakes on a heightened rack to keep crisp and not soggy.

Grate that cheese- but carefully!

My dad imparting safety chopping techniques.

Customizing omelets from a selection of meat and veggie fillings! 

Individual omelet making! Cooking the selected filling and then encasing in cooked egg crepe.

Mom and Uncle Quan getting in the action! Quan put banana slices 
in his omelet, and he said it was different and sweet-good at the end. Why not? :D

Preparing a variety of fresh fruit for real fruit-infused water.

I just love seeing kids build knife skills confidence holding a real but safe sharp knife.

Make-your-own real fruit water station with tap & carbonated & coconut waters or combo as a base.

Beautifully vibrant, fresh and delish!

To make the most of the fruits' flavours in cold water, crush the fruits in glass or pitcher with spoon or fork, and/or let meld for two hours before serving.

Much better than sugar-laden commercial soda and fruit drinks.

Enjoying the fruits of their labour- literally!

Omelet served with hot salsa sauce, and a yummy real mixed fruit beverage. YUM!

What a great day with the family cooking together and forgetting all else for a while. Hearing that the kids had so much fun, and some saying that they don't usually eat omelets but will now because they really liked making and eating it, or liking the fresh fruit water was music to my ears. We will definitely be doing this again with the extended fam. Cooking is a necessary life skill, a rite of passage and opens up a whole world of eating healthily and discovering new tastes. Starting them young is key. The core of cooking is the knife-- get your kids in the kitchen early, teach them how to use it and they will never lose it! 

It's been proven, that kids enjoy cooking given the chance. Throw caution in the wind, let it go and let your kids cook with you. Before you know it, they will be trying new foods, getting creative and helping to bring a positive and healthy attitude to the family table.
You guys were Super Awesome! So proud of you all! 

Monday, May 15, 2017

Organic Farming Experiential Program at YMCA...

I was thrilled to accompany Northview Heights Secondary School's grade 12 culinary program teachers and students on their field trip to YMCA Cedar Glen in Schomberg (one hour north from downtown Toronto), to enjoy one of YMCA's outdoor experiential programs of organic farming. Ministry of Education's Student's Success/Learning to 18 Strategic Policy branch has mandated a toolkit for Specialist High Skills Major (SHSM) enrolled students, called I.C.E. - innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship. Northview chose Cedar Glen as the community partner and worked with them to come up with solutions to a problem. As the practical activity to the class theory on growing food to complete Gear 3 of the I.C.E. toolkit, program head Chef Dimitra K. organized for her students to get hands-on at a real farm for a 360 experience. They've already come in October to help in the harvest and to enjoy the farm-to-fork produce for lunch in the centre's cafeteria. Now, they're returning in the spring to see the front end- to be part of how it all starts and grows. Connecting with nature and mother earth, and planting seeds for the food future is beyond exhilarating! 

Teaching kids cooking and life skills at Northview, making everything from scratch right down to pastry and ketchup, their culinary program is a poster child for everything Food Revolution stands for (two years ago, they held my massive event of 1500 participants with Jamie Oliver joining in via video-conf). Their 400 + enrolled grades 10 to 12 students along with teachers, program assistants and student volunteers cook everything from scratch every day to make the lunch meals served in the school cafeteria — now up to 1700 students! And their culinary program is hands-down amazing with a frequently updated student food blog to showcase all the great work! I have a continual relationship with their culinary curriculum and I am always excited to be there to capture their amazing advocacy for "real" field education beyond the classroom. Props to the incredible department of dedicated teachers!

Northview's SHSM is partnered with Food Share and the community HUB to work on the school grounds garden connected with the HUB space. They partner to teach youth how to start a garden, grow and manage their garden, and then benefit from the produce!

HUB Space adjacent to Northview School.

Getting the low down on the exercise out on the field today.

Grabbing our farming tools of rakes and shovels and off we march to the field.
It was a beautiful but extremely windy day out there... Hang on to our hats!

Preparing the seed bed for growing.

Turning the soil for aeration with a rake.

Planting oats!

Farming is a lot of work. A great work out for your muscles! 

Digging deeper to prepare for planting onions and potatoes. Then over goes some compost.

Onions are planted from bulbs!

Can you guess what these are?

Banana Fingerling Potatoes!

Russet Potatoes!


Getting instructions to plant kale.

Balmy in the greenhouse!

Culinary Program Instructors Chef Dimitra K. and Janet.

Preparing the soil for seedling planters. We've got cucumbers and zucchini.

Plant pointy seed side down!

The dynamic culinary program of students graduating this year! More than half are going to pursue a food career and continuing their studies at a college. I wish you all the best of luck!

The breathtaking panoramic view from the YMCA cafeteria during lunch.
In the fall, the colours and foliage is even more exquisite!

Located in beautiful surroundings, YMCA Outdoor Centres create meaningful group experiences fostering personal growth, skill development and teamwork especially to support youth, educational and community organizations. Leaving the classroom behind and getting outdoors allows students to learn, strengthen and create memories that will last a lifetime with experiential learning activities! With farming, its the best kind of real food education ever!