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Credit: Douglas & McIntyre

"I’ve always loved simple food prepared with care and quality, made with fresh ingredients and served in a fun, unstuffy, welcoming environment,” says Rob Feenie.

In Casual Classics, Rob Feenie – Canada’s first Iron Chef America champion – shares favourite recipes from his family's kitchen, featuring simple steps and fresh ingredients

"As a wise woman, my mother, once told me, the most important ingredient in food is love. Without it, food means nothing,” says Rob Feenie, in the introduction to his latest cookbook, Rob Feenie’s Casual Classics.

The fit father of three and Cactus Club executive chef is clearly passionate about cooking fresh, healthy meals for his family – even after a long day of work.

And cooking is a family affair. “My daughter sent me an e-mail this morning just to remind me what to bring home tonight,” says Feenie, who, along with his wife, prefers to stay home most nights for family food and fun.

Cookbook Evolved from Feenie Family Favourites

“I don’t go out very much and when I do I pick my spots, because we just like being at home – it’s very soothing,” he says, “especially for the kids because I know what to make them. Pretty much everything in the book is everything that I cook at home for my kids.”

He hums and chuckles about his family’s favourites, unable to narrow it down, rattling off a long list that includes broccoli with pecorino cheese and lemon juice for his kids – “it’s the easiest recipe in the book to make” and “it’s very basic but it’s very good for you and on top of it, it’s a great way for me to get my kids to eat broccoli.” He also lists the quinoa, green bean and tomato salad (see recipe below) for his wife, “a health nut,” and for him the marinated barbecued steelhead salmon – “it’s really simple and healthy – and the cheddar cheese apple pie, “which is my mother’s,” he says.

Where Feenie Gets His Ingredients

His friend, celebrity chef Mario Batali, praises Feenie’s approach to cooking with his emphasis on fresh ingredients: “In Casual Classics, Rob Feenie hits the nail on the head: the recipes and the stories are the perfect building blocks to delightful and delicious family meals. Letting the ingredients shine is the best advice of all,” he wrote on the back of the book.

Feenie, who says, “I’ve always been a big fan of supporting local,” has a few favourites when it comes to selecting ingredients.

He likes Superstore’s large organic section, which he says offers value on a grander scale across the country, and Costco for its offering of affordable Ocean Wise Lois Lake steelhead, a sustainable omega-rich fish harvested in Powell River on the Sunshine Coast.

Locally, he says, “Thrifty supermarkets are fantastic” and “Granville Island’s always been a place that’s near and dear to my heart.” A standout at the Granville Island Market, he says, is Oyama Sausage Company – “one of my favourite places on the planet. They make everything from scratch, it’s all organically done, and just fantastic products.”

Cooking Family Meals Helps You Slow Down and Reconnect

Putting it all together is cherished family time. “They all participate in terms of what they want to eat,” says Feenie, about his three young children pitching in at dinnertime, “and that’s something that’s really important for my wife and I, is to have them involved. It’s a big part of who I am, but more importantly, it’s a big part of who my family is.”

Slowing down is one of the highlights of cooking, says Feenie. “We tend to go a bit too quick and we tend to eat too quick and we eat too much fast food, and I think you just need to slow down a bit.”

“What I think this book is all about is to spend some time with your family, spend some time with your loved ones, and enjoy it.”

Flipping through recipes like ahi tuna tartare, quinoa jambalaya and rabbit in tarragon mustard sauce, it’s evident Feenie believes in exposing children to a diverse range of foods. “I cook the kind of things I like to eat and my kids have been surrounded by that since they were born so they’ve been around sushi, they’ve been around soy, they’ve been around shitake mushrooms, they’ve been around everything.”

Feenie's Kitchen Tips and Tricks

Feenie is a huge advocate of brining. “When you brine something with the salt/sugar mixture”, he says, whether it’s pork, chicken or turkey, “it helps break down some of the enzymes in the meat and actually tenderizes it. It protects it and it seals in all the juices.”

The brine recipe (a combination of salt, sugar and seasonings) from the brined, grilled pork chops in the cookbook (see recipe below) can be used for poultry as well, and Feenie encourages experimentation like the bourbon/maple syrup brine he once used for pork chops.

When it comes to cooking seafood, take a cue from the Japanese, says Feenie, who eat much of their seafood raw (be sure to check which types are safe to eat raw first). “The closer you can keep it to that, the better,” he says. “Scallops are an item that you can cook medium-rare. They’re better at medium-rare because when you overcook them they get chewy.”

To help keep fish, like halibut or salmon, moist, always cook it with the skin on, says Feenie. “It’s important to keep the skin on because there’s a small layer of fat between the skin and flesh and that keeps the fish moist.” Also, cooking with larger cuts, like leaving the fillet whole instead of cutting it into smaller pieces, will help prevent it from drying out as much.

The bottom line for cooking success, says Feenie, is to keep the recipes simple and start with the right products. “If you start with an incredible product it’s very rare in the end you’re going to get a poor result,” he says.

Quinoa, Green Bean and Tomato Salad

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Serves 4 to 6

Ingredients

  • 1 cup quinoa, washed well and drained
  • 1 1/2 cups water
  • 3/4 lb fresh green beans, in 1-inch pieces
  • 1/2 lb very ripe Roma tomatoes (3 to 4)
  • 1 bell pepper (any colour), in 1-inch dice
  • 2 Tbsp capers, rinsed
  • 4 green onions, in 1/2-inch slices
  • 1/2 cup roughly chopped fresh basil
  • 3/4 tsp salt
  • 2 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
  • 3 Tbsp toasted pecans

Instructions

  1. Combine quinoa and the 1 1/2 cups water in a medium pot and bring to a simmer on medium heat.
  2. Reduce the heat to low, cover and cook until all the liquid is absorbed, 15 to 20 minutes. Set aside.
  3. Fill a large bowl with ice water.
  4. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil on high heat, add green beans and cook for 4 to 5 minutes, until barely tender.
  5. Remove from the heat and drain green beans in a colander.
  6. Place the colander in the ice water to preserve the beans’ bright green colour and stop them from cooking further.
  7. Using a sharp knife, cut tomatoes in half and gently squeeze out and discard the seeds. (It is not necessary to remove the skins for this recipe.)
  8. Cut tomatoes in 1/2-inch dice.
  9. In a large bowl, combine quinoa, green beans, tomatoes, bell peppers, capers, green onions and basil.
  10. Season with salt, olive oil and lemon juice, and sprinkle with pecans. Will keep refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 2 days.

Asian Sloppy Joes with Cabbage-Cilantro Slaw

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Serves 6 to 8

Cabbage-Cilantro Slaw Ingredients

  • 2 cups shredded green cabbage
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • 2 Tbsp rice vinegar
  • 1 Tbsp low-sodium soy sauce
  • Juice of 1 lime (about 1 Tbsp)
  • 2 Tbsp grapeseed oil

Sloppy Joes Ingredients

  • 2 Tbsp grapeseed oil
  • 2 red onions, in 1/4 inch dice (about 2 cups)
  • 1 Tbsp minced garlic
  • 1 Tbsp minced fresh ginger
  • 2 ribs celery, in 1/4-inch dice (about 3/4 cup)
  • 1 Tbsp sambal oelek or any hot sauce of your choice
  • 1 lb extra-lean ground beef
  • 1 lb ground pork
  • 1 cup hoisin sauce
  • 1 cup chopped fresh or canned Roma tomatoes
  • Juice of 1 lime (about 1 Tbsp)
  • 2 tsp sea salt
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper
  • 6 Portuguese buns or any other bun of your choice

Cabbage-Cilantro Slaw Instructions

  1. Combine cabbage and cilantro in a large bowl.
  2. In a small bowl, whisk together rice vinegar, soy sauce, lime juice and grapeseed oil.
  3. Just before serving, pour the vinaigrette over the cabbage mixture and toss lightly. Will keep refrigerated in an airtight container for 2 days.

Sloppy Joes Instructions

  1. Heat a large, heavy frying pan on medium-high.
  2. Add grapeseed oil and swirl the pan to spread the oil.
  3. Add onions, garlic, ginger, celery and sambal oelek and sauté, stirring often, until onions are translucent, about 5 minutes.
  4. Add ground beef and ground pork and use a wooden spoon to break meat into small pieces.
  5. Cook, stirring frequently, until meat is no longer pink, 6 to 8 minutes.
  6. Pour off and discard any fat from the meat.
  7. Add hoisin sauce, tomatoes and lime juice, then season with salt and pepper.
  8. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for 20 to 25 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  9. Preheat the oven to 375˚f.
  10. Cut the buns in half, place them on a baking sheet and warm for 2 minutes, or until very lightly toasted.
  11. Arrange the bottom halves of the buns on individual plates.
  12. Spoon about 2/3 cup of the sloppy joe mixture on top of each bun, then cover with 2 to 3 Tbsp of cabbage-cilantro slaw. Finish with the top halves of the buns. Serve immediately.
  13. Refrigerate leftover meat and slaw, separately, in airtight containers for up to 2 days.

Brined, Grilled Pork Chops with Apple-Pineapple Relish and Braised Brussels Sprouts

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Serves 4

Pork Chops Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup kosher salt
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 4 cups water
  • 1 Tbsp crushed black peppercorns
  • 1 bunch fresh thyme
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 4 double-cut pork chops, each 12 to 14 oz
  • 2 tsp extra-virgin olive oil

Apple-Pineapple Relish Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup diced Granny Smith apple
  • 1 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup diced pineapple
  • 1 Tbsp rice vinegar
  • 1 Tbsp liquid honey
  • 1/3 cup roasted pecans, lightly crushed

Braised Brussels Sprouts Ingredients

  • 1 cup diced good-quality maple-smoked bacon
  • 2 Tbsp finely chopped shallots
  • 1 lb Brussels sprouts, cleaned and thinly sliced
  • 1 Tbsp butter
  • Juice of 1/2 lemon (about 1 Tbsp)
  • 2 Tbsp freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Pork Chops Instructions

  1. To brine pork, combine salt, sugar and the 4 cups water in a large glass or enamel bowl, mixing until dissolved.
  2. Add peppercorns, thyme and bay leaves and refrigerate until cold, about 30 minutes.
  3. Place pork chops in a large resealable bag, cover with brine and close tightly.
  4. Place the bag in a large bowl and refrigerate for 24 hours.
  5. Preheat a barbecue grill to 400˚F.
  6. Line a plate with paper towels.
  7. Using tongs, remove pork chops from the brine and set on the lined plate to absorb any liquid. (If the pork chops are damp, the meat will flame on the barbecue.)
  8. Discard the brine.
  9. Allow pork chops to come to room temperature, 15 to 20 minutes, then season with salt and black pepper and brush
    lightly with olive oil.
  10. Grill chops for 5 minutes, then turn them 45˚ and cook for another 5 minutes.
  11. Turn chops over, and grill for 5 minutes, then turn them 45˚ and grill for 5 minutes more.
  12. Insert a meat thermometer; once the meat reads 160˚f, immediately remove chops from the heat and allow to rest for 5 minutes.

Apple-Pineapple Relish Instructions

  1. In a large bowl, toss apple with lemon juice until well coated.
  2. Add pineapple, rice vinegar and honey and set aside. This relish will keep (without the pecans, which are added just before serving) refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 4 days.

Braised Brussels Sprouts Instructions

  1. Line a small plate with a paper towel.
  2. In a medium frying pan on medium heat, cook bacon until lightly crispy, about 5 minutes. (If the meat begins to smoke, reduce the heat.)
  3. Remove bacon from the pan and drain on the lined plate.
  4. Carefully pour off some of the rendered fat, then add shallots and cook for another 2 minutes.
  5. Stir in Brussels sprouts and cook for 2 more minutes, then add bacon and butter and toss lightly.
  6. Season with salt, black pepper and lemon juice.
  7. Remove from heat and stir in Parmesan cheese

Serving Instructions

  1. Fold pecans into the apple-pineapple relish.
  2. Divide the Brussels sprouts mixture between each of 4 plates.
  3. Place a pork chop over the sprouts and spoon a tablespoon of the apple mixture on top.
  4. Serve immediately.

Recipes courtesy Douglas & McIntyre