January 20, 2010

Cooking with Bonnie

You know when you go to someone's house for dinner and - from the minute you walk in the door - it's like a big, warm hug? 

That's what cooking with Bonnie is like.

Bonnie is Bonnie Stern, Toronto's pre-eminent cooking doyenne. Cooking and eating with Bonnie is like being with your best friend, mother and favourite chef all rolled into one. I went to my first Bonnie Stern cooking class years ago. It was a demonstration class about Mediterranean food. I had never heard of charmoula or Israeli couscous, didn't like lamb, thought watching food being made rather than making it myself wouldn't be any fun.

Bonnie changed all of that, but more importantly changed my attitude towards entertaining at home forever. Always generous with her wisdom and advice, Bonnie encourages her students to ask questions while she cooks. On that night, a woman lamented: “When I have guests over, how can I get the plates to the table so that they’re still hot?” Bonnie smiled and said gently: “Your friends are so happy to be at your home and having someone else cook for them, that they’re not worried about whether the plates are hot or not.” Wise words indeed.

Since that long ago evening, I’ve been blessed to get to know Bonnie personally, and to be invited to her home. The welcome is always enveloping, the food always delicious and the hospitality like family. But last night I was reminded about what Bonnie’s real gift is – the ability to share her passion and love of food, of genuine hospitality even with strangers. At a corporate cooking class with my colleagues at Bonnie’s school, I was both proud friend and eager student: making almond pesto for a gorgeous beet and fresh mozzarella salad, happily slurping cold soba noodles with fat grilled shrimp, setting the table and folding napkins with my co-workers, and finally sitting down to a feast that we helped create with Bonnie's magic.

As always, Bonnie managed to distill the evening's pleasure into simple words of advice: "When you have people over for dinner, make them part of the experience - draw them in. When everyone contributes to the final feast, even if it's as simple a task as cutting the bread or dressing the salad, it tastes even better."

Bon appétit to that!

Carmelised Onions

I've been making Brie with carmelised onions for years.  Eating Bonnie's pizza last night, slathered with carmelised onions on quick puff pastry and laced with Gorgonzola, I was reminded that carmelised onions are just about good with anything.  Double this recipe, freeze half and use liberally for anything from grilled cheese sandwiches to my favourite - a full wheel of Brie cheese, top cut off and spread with onions and baked until meltingly soft at 350F (about 30 minutes).

2 tbsps butter
8 cups sliced onions (about 4 large)
1 tbsp minced fresh thyme
4 garlic cloves, chopped
½ cup dry white wine
½ tbsp sugar

1. Melt butter in heavy very large skillet over medium-high heat. Add onions; sauté until just tender, about 6 minutes. Add minced thyme, reduce heat to medium and cook until onions are golden, stirring often, about 20 minutes.

2. Add garlic and sauté 2 minutes. Add ¼ cup wine; stir until almost all liquid evaporates, about 2 minutes. Sprinkle sugar over onions and sauté until soft and brown, about 10 minutes. Add remaining ¼ cup wine; stir just until liquid evaporates, about 2 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cool.