Recently, I catered a friend’s daughter’s first communion dinner. It was a casual family gathering at her home so I wanted to keep the menu simple yet flavourful. After a long, cold winter of heavy comfort foods I wanted to bring something lighter to the table. Spring is the perfect time of year for lighter fare, so the inspiration for my menu was using fresh Ontario spring vegetables and fresh herbs. I also decided to incorporate my favourite spring fruit, Meyer lemons, into many of the dishes. For those of you who haven’t heard of a Meyer lemon, it is a varietal lemon that’s smaller than a regular lemon and tastes like a cross between a lemon and a tangerine. It’s the perfect combination of sweet and sour and, in keeping with my seasonal theme, is only available in the Spring.
The host had requested a buffet dinner rather than a sit down meal so I created a few appetizers for people to enjoy prior to the main course while socializing with a glass of wine in hand or as an accompaniment to the rest of the meal. The following is the menu that I prepared as well as a few of the recipes that seemed to be a big hit.
Goat cheese stuffed mushroom caps
Hummus and roasted Ontario red pepper dip with crostini and pita bread
Grape tomato, bocconcini, fresh basil skewers with a balsamic reduction
Couscous salad with fresh Ontario vegetables
Baby greens with toasted walnuts, dried sour cherries and fresh Bartlett pear
Focaccia bread topped with grape tomatoes and fresh Ontario herbs
Barbequed salmon fillets brushed with fresh Ontario herb pesto, served with a Meyer lemon relish
Roasted Ontario Red Pepper Dip:
1 500g tub Greek style feta cheese
1 tsp ground black pepper
2 tbs Greek style yogurt
Roast 2 peppers either in the oven or on a BBQ. Place peppers in a paper bag. Let them rest until they are cool enough to handle by hand. In the meantime place feta cheese in a food processor and pulse a couple of times. Once peppers have cooled peel and discard skin, stem and seeds. Slice peppers and place in food processor with feta cheese. Pulse a few times until blended, still somewhat coarse and not runny. Pour mixture into a bowl, and mix in yogurt and ground pepper. Serve with crostini, pita bread or even fresh veggies.
Goat Cheese Stuffed Mushroom Caps:
6 large white mushrooms
1 shallot – finely chopped
1 clove garlic – finely chopped
1/2 cup fine bread crumbs
2 -3 stems fresh thyme
1/2 cup soft goat cheese
1/2 tsp each salt & pepper
4 tbs olive oil
Pre-heat over to 350 degrees. Separate mushroom caps from stems. Set stems aside. With a small spoon remove gills and some of the inside of the mushrooms. Place mushroom caps face down in an oven proof dish or on a cookie sheet then brush with oil. Place in oven and cook for 10 minutes or until golden brown.
Finely chop shallots and the mushroom stems. Heat oil in a frying pan. Add shallots and mushrooms to pan when oil is hot. Saute on medium heat for 5 minutes. Add chopped garlic and thyme and saute for 1 – 2 minutes. Add bread crumbs to the pan and stir mixture together. Once all ingredients are incorporated, add Goat cheese. The cheese may stick to the bottom of the pan so increase heat and keep stirring if this happens.
Remove mushroom caps from oven, turn them over and fill each one with the mixture. Let cool then place in air-tight container and refrigerated until ready to serve. Reheat at 350 degrees for 10 minutes or until heated though.
Meyer Lemon Relish:
4 Meyer lemons
1 large shallots – 1/2 minced, 1/2 thinly sliced
2 tbs each fresh lemon, lime and orange juices
1 tbs white wine vinegar
2 tbs fresh chopped chives
1 tbs chopped parsley
1 tsp honey
Pinch of crushed chillies
1/3 cup olive oil
Salt & pepper to taste
Peel Meyer lemons. Save peel of one half lemon and slice very thinly. Separate the pulp from the membrane and finely chop the lemon pulp (discarding membrane and seeds) and transfer to a bowl. Add all other ingredients, stir together, cover and refrigerate for up to 3 days. If the relish is too sour add a bit more honey. Serve with Salmon.
Couscous Salad with Spring Vegetables in a Tarragon Dressing
2 cups medium grain couscous
1/2 english cucumber
1/4 red onion finely chopped
2 green onions thinly sliced
1 cup grape tomatoes halved
1 orange/red or yellow pepper diced
4 medium radishes thinly sliced
1/2 cut fresh peas
1/4 cup chopped parsley
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice (I used meyer lemon, but regular is fine)
1 tsp dijon mustard
2 tbs honey
1 tbs finely chopped tarragon
3/4 cup olive oil
Salt & pepper to taste
Bring 2 cups of water to a boil, add couscous, remove from heat, cover and let rest for 5 minutes. Uncover, fluff with a fork and add 1/4 cup of olive oil and salt and pepper. Once couscous is cooled add chopped vegetables and parsley. Mix together lemon juice, Dijon mustard, honey, tarragon, salt, pepper and olive oil. Pour dressing over couscous and vegetables and mix until dressing is absorbed. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve. This salad can be served cold or at room temperature.
Choosing ingredients that can easily be incorporated into a few different recipes not only makes your shopping list a little shorter, it gives your menu a continuity of flavour. The ingredient can be a featured star, like the Meyer Lemon Relish, or a supporting role as used in a salad dressing.
Whether you’re planning a casual weeknight meal or cooking for a special occasion you can never go wrong by using fresh seasonal ingredients. The internet or local newspapers are a great way to source out some wonderful farmers markets in your area. Roadside stands on the way to the cottage always have some incredible fresh local produce and products. I am fortunate enough to live and work close to Kensington and St. Lawrence markets which are open year round. I also live within walking distance of one of the many seasonal farmers markets in Toronto. There’s nothing I love more than walking through the markets and letting the sights and smells inspire me. It’s an adventure that always has a happy, tasty ending.