Last weekend, I drove 5 hours from Toronto to Montreal on 2 hours of sleep to feed 30 hungry skaters over a period of 24 hours. Why? Once again, I proclaimed myself Head Of Catering Department during the 24h Roller Montreal inline skating relay event for my team Skater’s Quest. If you remember my effort from 2011 and 2012, you may recall that I only previously fed 20 skaters. This year, I expanded my offer to skaters of other teams as well and the final tally was 30. It was a little overwhelming. Just a little.
Lessons and feedback from previous years were put to good use. This year, I spent much more time planning and less running around in circles. It was good that my old spreadsheets provided a solid template for my game plan. I got to spend time on fun stuff such as putting together the menu and seeking out great recipes. Running two slow cookers side by side was so successful that I had to do it again. But why limit myself to hot main courses for dinner? I upped the ante this year by adding hot breakfast items as well. Once again, I kept the menu mostly vegan to provide a good variety of dishes to both vegans and omnivores alike. But of course, my decision was made predominately for food safety reasons since vegan ingredients are less prone to food-born disease. As unglamorous as it sounds, taste was obviously important but not at the cost of upset stomachs. I placed a high priority on low risk yet nourishing food that appeal to different palates when the athletes are exhausted.
Without further ado, this is what we ate last weekend.
Lunch / Snack
Although the race officially began at 3pm, most of us arrived at the F1 race track Gilles-Villeneuve race way before noon to set up. As soon as I unloaded my car, I set the table with a buffet of lunch items and snacks for skaters to graze. Hummus is a perennial favourite. This time I made Paula Wolfert’s famous hummus recipe which yielded a generous 5 cups. What a fine balance of creamy tahini, earthy chickpea, savoury garlic, and tart lemon! I only wished I came across this recipe sooner. As much as I would simply eat the hummus by spoonfuls, I provided corn chips, pretzels, baby carrots, pita bread, and crispy flatbread for dipping. The mix-your-own trail mix bar had bags of dried figs, apricots, cranberries, dates, peanut M&Ms, yogurt covered raisins, roasted almonds, and sunflower seeds. Bananas, local Niagara peaches, plums, and oranges were refreshing addition to the snack buffet. Loaves of hearty multigrain bread from Première Moisson were accompanied by almond butter, Nutella, homemade strawberry rhubarb jam, homemade orange marmalade, and homemade vanilla pear butter. There was no shortage of choices.
For something more substantial, I made a dozen Spiced Lentil, Sweet Potato & Kale Whole Wheat Pockets. I was inspired by the recipe in The Kitchn but ended up making it my way. You can read more about it here. The frozen individually-packaged pockets defrosted at room temperature and was enjoyed a little on the cold side. For the non-vegans in the group, I brought along two loaves of Pan Bagnat, a pressed ciabatta sandwich filled with tuna, green olives, cured artichokes, sweet peppers, red onions, and basil.
Aside from setting up the lunch table, I got both slow cookers going before 2pm. Timing was crucial because the recipes needed sufficient time to cook before people got the hunger pang for supper. For this reason, I chose two recipes from Slow Cooker Revolution that do not require a ridiculous amount of cooking time. Barbecue Pulled Chicken Sandwich was well received last year so it made an encore appearance. My 5-qt slow cooker easily fit over 6lb of chicken thighs to accommodate more appetites last weekend. I brought along a jar of homemade bread and butter pickles and two dozens hamburger buns for the sandwiches.
The other hot main course was vegan Tempeh Chili. I make this regularly at home because tempeh is one of the most potent source of plant-based protein. The chili was fortified with red kidney beans, green peppers, onions, zucchinis, crimini mushrooms, and corn kernels. It would have been a piece of cake to prepare this dish except for one small problem. I ran out of my favourite chili powder from Penzey’s. Of course I did not place my order early enough so I had to improvise. Using guidelines from Serious Eats’ Best Chili recipe, I made a potent chili paste using toasted guajillo (4), New Mexico (3), casabel (1), tomato paste, onion, garlic, soy sauce, ground cumin (1 1/2 tablespoons), ground coriander (1 1/2 teaspoons), ground cloves (1/4 teaspoons), ground coffee beans (1 tablespoon), and bittersweet chocolate (2 tablespoons). I was very relieved that the chili tasted superb with layers of complex flavours. Just don’t ask me to repeat the effort.
You can’t serve chili without cornbread. You just can’t. I used the tried-and-true Northern Cornbread recipe from Cook's Illustrated Cookbook and made 1.5 times the amount to fill a 9x13 pan. I cut the cornbread into 15 pieces and it was just the right amount.
With the hot main courses covered, I flexed my creative muscles with a quintet of vegan salads. These are really the food I would make for myself on a regular basis except the volume makes my eyes glazed over with disbelief.
The best thing that came out of my anti-inflammatory dieting days is the recipes I developed. My favourite, by far, is Herb & Ginger Roasted Sweet Potatoes. The freshness of herbs, the zing of ginger, the crunch of pecans, and the sweet spicy Aleppo Maple vinaigrette all made the roasted sweet potatoes taste so much better than on its own. Of course I had to share this dish with all my friends.
Fruit And Nut Quinoa Salad made a three-peat on my 24h relay menu. This is one of the few things I cook intuitively without recipe yet comes out right every single time. And a huge hit with the skaters too! I mean, you can’t go wrong with quinoa, dried cranberries, apricots, toasted almond, parsley, mint, and cilantro. Or perhaps the sweet tart orange vinaigrette is key? It was a lot of orange zest, orange juice, sherry vinegar, olive oil, pomegranate molasses, cinnamon, and ginger orange mustard.
Did I ever mention how much I love French green lentils? I can’t get enough of them. They don’t get mushy and I simply adore the mineral flavour. And I just found my new favourite way to enjoy them. April Bloomfield’s Lentil Chickpea Salad with Tahini may not sound like much on paper but I guarantee you’ll be blown away by the complex yet bold taste. Since I already cooked a whole pound of dried chickpeas for the hummus, it was a no brainer to use some in this salad. The tahini dressing with lemon juice, garlic, cumin, and coriander was most pleasing. I enjoyed the salad as filling for whole wheat pita bread, even better with a swipe of hummus!
I always have a soft spot for dolmades but never got around to make this fussy Greek mezze. When I came across a recipe for rice salad touted as a deconstructed dolmade, I could not pass on the opportunity. Except that I had trouble following directions and put in my personal touches. The Grape Leaf Pilaf with Fennel, Crimini, and Aburage was the result of my tinkering. Brown basmati rice (2 cups dry) and black rice (1 cup dry) were tossed with chopped pickled grape leaves (1 cup), sliced fennels (1 large bulb), sugar snap peas (1.5 cups), pan seared crimini mushrooms (400g), and toasted aburage (8 squares) dressed in plenty of olive oil and lemon juice.
Another example of me not sticking with a recipe is Smoky Yellow Eye Beans Tofu Salad with Sriracha Miso Dressing. The original recipe won the best mayo salad contest on food52 but of course I would not use mayonnaise. Tahini sauce made for a wonderful stand-in when mixed with white miso and Sriracha. Since I already had a lentil salad, I decided to cook some yellow eye beans instead. I was not about to learn a new cooking skill under such a demanding schedule so liquid smoke conveniently added some smoky flavour. I also tossed in a pound of smoked tofu for good measure (can’t have enough protein, you know?). I salted and rinsed the cucumbers to prevent weeping. Oh, and there were some chopped red onion to mingle with the grape tomato halves too. Yup, the final dish looked nothing like the original inspiration yet oh-so-addictive.
I originally did not plan to skate in the race because I am not in shape this season. With all those free time, I immediately turned my attention to creating a waffle bar and told EVERYONE about it. Well, my team captain eventually talked me into racing but I could no longer back out from my promise of waffles because that would just be cruel. I scaled back on complexity and simply served a double batch of Malted Waffles with toppings including cherries compote, berries compote, maple syrup, chocolate chip cookie butter, in addition to whatever jams and nut butters already set out. It totally made my day when a skater exclaimed “we’re having waffles at the race? I don’t even make waffles at home!” I’m telling you, I get really good value out of my waffle maker purchase.
Breakfast should not be an after-thought and I made sure of it last weekend. Before I turned in for the night, I threw all the ingredients for Spiced Porridge in the slow cooker and let it go. The name didn’t do it justice because there was so much more than spices and porridge. The next morning, I woke up to a steaming hot pot of creamy steel cut oatmeal sweetened with brown sugar and pockets of plump cranberries, apricots, figs, and dates. But the aroma! Cinnamon, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, and vanilla bean joined forces to make sure we were enticed. I highly recommend this recipe for any time of year. Skaters were welcomed to enrich the porridge with yogurt or almond milk.
I am happy to eat breakfast any time of the day and variety is key to enjoyment. To prove that point, the breakfast spread also included Olive Oil and Maple Granola, vegan Rice Pudding made with soy milk, and Italian Prune Plum Breakfast Crisp. I was in breakfast heaven.
Last year I brought along trays of assorted cookies as treats but I wanted something easier and different this year. In my attempt to make space in the freezer for all the food I needed to store, I used up my stash of persimmon puree. It became Persimmon Cake with Bourbon Raisins and Walnuts. I skipped the cream cheese icing this time but if you’re making this for yourself, I highly recommend it. One of the most luscious cream cheese icing I ever made.
Have you ever had the Tortuga Rum Cake? It is one of my weaknesses and I can happily finish a whole cake all by myself. This is really bad news because King Arthur Flour recently published their version and it is even better than the original. The tender butter cake had the loveliest golden colour thanks to addition of Bird’s custard powder. A whole cup of dark rum went into the cake to make sure it was moist and ridiculously boozy. With this cake, we wrapped up another edition of 24h relay in sugary rum-my euphoria. As for me, I left Montreal with great memories, huge sense of accomplishment, and empty coolers neatly packed with empty containers. It is now time for a well-deserved break from cooking.