The Darina Allen Column - Toronto

Darina’s endless research into the most interesting and sustainably produced foods continues, with a recent trip to Canada a big hit – and of particular interest there, in view of her new venture, the Ballymaloe Organic Farm School, was a visit to the Downsview Park urban farm project in Toronto 

Food is my subject so everywhere I travel I'm on the lookout for new foods, new flavours, the latest food trends, (new to me) ingredients and techniques.

Before I leave, I do lots of research and seek insider information to build a list of 'not to be missed' places from street stalls and cafés to high end fine dining establishments. The latter are often my least favourites. I'm fast tiring of exotic foamy presentations and skid marks on plates, and ever more ludicrous dining experiences at extortionate guilt-inducing prices.

On a recent trip to Canada, I ate some delicious things, but one of the most memorable was something called Run over Potato at Miznon, an Israeli sandwich place on Bay Street in downtown Toronto. It came on a gold rectangular cardboard tray and looked positively unappealing. It turned out to be three or four, first steamed then roasted potatoes squished between two sheets of parchment on a smear of crème fraîche with garlic, spring onions and dill, drizzled with extra-virgin oil and sprinkled with freshly cracked pepper and flaky sea salt. Couldn't have looked less appetising but it was still warm and super delicious.

At the Toronto International Festival of Authors in the Harbourfront Centre, I quizzed Mark Schatzker, the food writer from the Globe and Mail about Toronto food. He was adamant that I mustn't leave Toronto without tasting butter chicken roti (check out Roti Mahal), sushi pizza and bubble tea if that's your thing, but I don't love bubble tea.

I was on my way to Calgary to speak at the Terroir Talk Symposium but my principal reason for visiting Toronto was to catch up with my friend Bonnie Stern who owned a cooking school in Toronto for many years. We've shared many bonding experiences together, including surviving the rare experience of going down the chute in the emergency evacuation of an aeroplane in Narita airport in Japan in the 1990s. We haven't seen each other for well over a decade so had lots of catching up to do. Bonnie who is a wonderful cook and a beloved teacher took me to many of her favourite haunts including Honest Weight, a super little café that serves spanking fresh fish and Soma chocolate maker who makes exquisite chocolate from ethical sources. We also visited Downsview City Farm and had a tour with Ran Goel of the collective of CSA Farms in the suburbs who grows beautiful organic produce to nourish the local community. A really inspirational project that could be replicated in any city.

Lots of delicious food including dinner at a Kiin, a much loved Vietnamese restaurant and another memorable meal at Restaurant 20 Victoria where chef/owner Chris White and his entire team were over the moon having just been awarded a Michelin Star the previous night. We were joined by Bonnie's daughter Anna Rupert who was co-author of Bonnie's latest book with the appealing title 'Don't Worry, Just Cook' - it's full of gems for the sort of home cooked food we all love including Chirshi, a multi-purpose pumpkin purée from the aforementioned cookbook perfectly timed for the squash and pumpkin season. A brilliant standby base for many good things.

To whet your appetite, here are some recipes taken from Don't Worry, Just Cook by Bonnie Stern and Anna Rupert, published by Appetite, Random House.

I first learned about chirshi, the delicious Tunisian and Libyan pumpkin spread, from my friend, Israeli food journalist and author Gil Hovav. He makes it very spicy and garlicky (like it is supposed to be), but it is very versatile and can be adapted in so many ways that it will surely become a family staple, as it is in mine. It is a perfect vegetarian/vegan appetizer and also makes a great vegetable side dish. Serve it as is, or sprinkled with pumpkin seeds, coriander, pomegranate seeds, goat or feta cheese, or drizzled with tahini, thick yoghurt, or labneh. I also love it sprinkled with Aleppo pepper or sweet paprika. Serve with challah, pita, tortilla chips, or raw vegetables. Leftovers can be made into soup (add broth or water) or pancakes (add eggs and flour).
Makes 2 ½ - 3 cups

2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 tsp Kosher salt plus more to taste
450g butternut squash, peeled and cut into 4cm chunks
450g sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 4cm chunks
1-2 garlic cloves, grated
85g pure tahini
2-3 tbsp fresh lemon juice, to taste
1 tbsp fresh thyme leaves
1 tsp – 1 tbsp harissa or other hot sauce plus more to taste
½ tsp smoked or sweet paprika
freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 190°C and line a baking tray with parchment paper. In a small bowl, combine the olive oil with the tomato paste and salt. Place the squash and sweet potatoes on the lined baking tray and toss well with the olive oil mixture to coat. Roast for 30-40 minutes or until tender and lightly browned. Let cool on the baking tray. Transfer the vegetables to a bowl and mash with a potato masher or fork if you like it slightly chunky like I do, or purée coarsely or until smooth in a food processor.
Mix in the garlic, tahini, lemon juice, thyme, harissa and smoked paprika. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Spread on a platter and serve as is, or sprinkle with pumpkin seeds, coriander, pomegranate seeds or any ingredients mentioned in the introduction.

Poke, originally from Hawaii, is now popular around the world. There are all sorts of poke with different fish (raw or cooked) and sauces. My version is a riff on the famous ahi tuna poke dip at the Kahala Resort in Honolulu, where I first tried it. This also makes a great main-course salad, sandwich filling, topping on a rice bowl, or filling for sushi rolls. Chopped cooked shrimp works well in place of the tuna.
Serves 8

115g mayonnaise
1 tbsp fresh lime juice
1 tbsp soy sauce
50g coarsely chopped fresh coriander
3 tbsp coarsely chopped pickled ginger
½ tsp toasted sesame oil
350g raw sushi-grade tuna, cut into small cubes
½ ripe avocado
To Serve
Little Gem lettuce cups

Combine the mayonnaise with the lime juice and soy sauce, followed by the coriander, ginger and sesame oil.
Add the tuna and refrigerate until ready to serve.
Dice the avocado and gently stir into the poke just before serving.
Serve in lettuce cups.

This is my most requested cookie, and the one that I always gave to visiting chefs and teachers who taught at my cooking school. I gave it to Yotam Ottolenghi, and he and Helen Goh included it in their cookbook Sweet – I was a little excited to say the least. It is also the cookie that has travelled the world. Not because I took it around the world, but because I once took an entire suitcase full of my rugelach to Israel to give to friends, but the airline lost the suitcase. It was returned to me 1 week later and I was informed it had travelled far and wide. Everyone has a slightly different recipe and technique for rugelach, and there are some unique cultural variations. During the pandemic, rugelach went the way of the babka, with all kinds of sweet and savoury fillings. This is the recipe I have always used, and while I like to look at the variations from a creative standpoint (e.g., pizza rugelach, everything bagel, smores, blue cheese, pumpkin), from an eating standpoint, I am sticking with these.
Makes 48 cookies

225g butter, cold and cut into evenly sized chunks
240g all-purpose (plain) flour
225g full-fat brick-style cream cheese, cold, cut into evenly sized chunks
225g light brown sugar
60g finely chopped roasted pecans
1 tsp cinnamon
170g best-quality apricot jam
1 egg, beaten
110g coarse sprinkling sugar

For the pastry, cut the butter into the flour until crumbly. This can be done in a food processor, in a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or in a large bowl with a pastry blender. Cut the cream cheese into the mixture until the dough just comes together. Divide the dough into four balls, flatten each to approximately a 10cm round, wrap in parchment paper and refrigerate for a few hours or overnight.
For the filling, in a small bowl, combine the brown sugar, nuts and cinnamon. Set aside.
Preheat the oven to 180°C and line two baking trays with parchment paper. Remove the dough from the refrigerator about 15 minutes before rolling. Roll each ball into a 25 – 25 1/2cm circle. (Lightly flour your work surface if necessary). The circles do not have to be perfect – if they aren't as good as you would like them, do not reroll, as in my experience, it never gets better. But you will get better at rolling the dough with practice. Spread each circle with about 2 tablespoons of apricot jam and sprinkle with one-quarter of the brown sugar mixture. Cut each circle into 12 wedges, as if you were cutting a pizza (or 16, if you want them smaller). Roll up each wedge from the outside/wide edge to the middle. Place on the lined baking tray. The unbaked cookies can be frozen flat on the baking trays, then transferred to resealable plastic bags once frozen, or you can freeze the cookies once baked. If baking from frozen, they may take a few minutes longer to cook.
To glaze, brush each cookie with beaten egg and sprinkle with coarse sugar.
Bake for 20-25 minutes or until browned. Cool for about 10 minutes on the baking tray, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. These cookies freeze well.
Note: Resist the temptation to overstuff, any extra jam or brown sugar will just ooze out of the rugelach when they bake and could burn. If that happens, you can cut or trim with scissors when cool, or not worry about it.

TORONTO SUSHI PIZZA – Crispy Sushi with Salmon, Avocado and Pickled Ginger
Ordinary cooked rice works perfectly too, though it's not as sticky.
This is a delicious combo

leftover sushi rice or sticky rice
flaky sea salt
extra virgin olive oil
smoked salmon or gravlax
wedges of avocado
horseradish sauce or wasabi
pickled ginger
coriander sprigs (optional)

Line the base and sides of a small 'lasagne' dish with parchment paper. Press the cooked rice into the dish so it's about 1cm deep. Cover and pop the block into the freezer for about 45 minutes.
Then unwrap, season with flaky sea salt. Dust both sides with a little seasoned flour or cornflour. Cut into fingers about 6 x 4cm.
Heat a little extra virgin olive oil in a wide, heavy frying pan. Cook until crisp and golden on all sides (4-5 minutes). Cool a little, spread a little horseradish sauce on each, add a strip of smoked salmon or gravlax, a wedge of avocado and a little pickled ginger and maybe a sprig of coriander. Alternatively, use raw wild salmon when available and a dash of wasabi. Dip in soy sauce and enjoy!

Easy to do, just follow the instructions.

450g sushi rice "No 1 Extra Fancy"
600ml water
Vinegar Water
50ml rice wine vinegar
1½ tablespoons sugar
2½ teaspoons salt

Rinse the rice for 8-10 minutes in a colander or sieve under cold running water or until the water becomes clear.
'Wake up' the rice by sitting it in 600ml cold water for 30 to 45 minutes. In the same water, bring to the boil and then cook for 10 minutes until all the water has been absorbed. Do not stir, do not even take off the lid. Turn up the heat for 10 seconds before turning the heat off. Remove the lid, place a tea towel over the rice, replace the lid and sit for 20 minutes.
Mix the rice wine vinegar, sugar and salt together in a bowl until dissolved. Turn the rice out onto a big flat plate (preferably wooden). While the rice is still hot, pour the vinegar solution over the rice and mix the rice and vinegar together in a slicing action with the aid of a wooden spoon. Don't stir. You must do it quickly, preferably fanning the rice with the fan. This is much easier if you have a helper. Allow to cool on the plate, cover with a tea towel and use as desired. (It will soak up the liquid as it cools.)

All recipes and images taken from Don't Worry, Just Cook by Bonnie Stern and Anna Rupert published by Appetite, Random House

The New Ballymaloe Bread Book was launched on 26th October 2023. To celebrate publication, I'll be doing various bread demonstrations around the country including the venues below – come and join me if you can and spread the word:

Dublin Cookery School – Wednesday, 8th November
Waterman House, Belfast - Thursday, 16th November

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