Q&A: Chef Michael Smith

By Tara Kimura, CBCNews.ca

We chatted with Chef Michael Smith, host of Chef Abroad and Chef at Home, on Friday and covered a range of issues including the local food movement, P.E.I.'s Fall Flavours festival, and how to stock your pantry. We also asked Smith a few of your questions (thanks readers for submitting excellent questions!). Here is an edited transcript of our conversation.

CBC.ca: Your new show features you visiting some exotic and far-flung places – how has travelling to these different places in the world changed your approach in the kitchen?


Michael Smith: I have to say that the best part of travelling is quite simply coming home. I've enjoyed some amazing adventures over the last two years and I've been to almost 30 countries now – we've been around the world four times. I've been to places like Thailand and Morocco and the Amazon – places that I've always wanted to go. I've learned many things, I've met fascinating people, I've tasted things I never even knew existed. But having said all of that I firmly believe that I would much rather be at home cooking on Prince Edward Island, hanging out with my friends and my family and showing off the local ingredients. So if anything I guess I've just learned to love even more what I have here, to understand just how blessed we are in Canada and here on Prince Edward Island.

CBC.ca: Can you tell us a bit about what people can expect at the Fall Flavours?

Michael Smith: Fall Flavours is a festival that we started last year and it was such a success, such an amazing blow-out success that it's extended to 10 days. And this year we have over 150 culinary events that will be a part of Fall Flavours. Fall Flavours takes place the end of September into the beginning of October so right in the middle of our harvest season here on Prince Edward Island.

We have programming that is loosely grouped into two different types. We have over 150 different things happening during those 10 days. During the day you can go and you can experience food and by that I mean, not just taste it or see it or hear about it but get your hands dirty. We'll take you out on the ocean and you can pull out lobster traps, you can see what it takes to land oysters and mussels, you can get right in and get dirty doing it.

You can spend the day on a farm digging potatoes and then sit down at the kitchen table with the farmer and his family for dinner. Those are the sorts of things we're doing during the day because we know that people really like to experience things now and not just see them or hear about them. During the evening, we have a whole roster of what we call "signature events" and these are events that feature our thriving community of chefs here on Prince Edward Island as well as the farmers and fishermen that largely define what foods all about here.

CBC.ca: Here's a question from one of our readers. Kerri asks, "I am growing eggplant in the garden this year for the first time. Any suggestions on how to use it besides the usual eggplant parmesan?"

Michael Smith: My all-time favourite way to eat eggplant is to grill it. There is a texture hidden in egglplant that some of us never get to experience and one of the best ways to get at is on the grill. You can simply cut eggplant either into very thick rounds or into long thin slices, brush it with a little bit of olive oil, salt and pepper and grill it. As you know, eggplant when it's raw is a bit spongy and as it cooks there will come a point when it goes from opaque to translucent and it takes on this amazing, creamy texture – this delicious, luscious texture that you will never forget.

CBC.ca: Ariel in Kitchener says, "I really like watching you go into the pantry and pull together a bunch of ingredients for a great meal. But what's your advice for the rest of us who don't have such a well-stocked fridge and pantry? How could we grocery shop to buy ingredients that can go together while still giving us the room to cook spontaneously without a recipe?"

Michael Smith: The first approach is to come at the art of cooking, free-styling mindset. In other words, perhaps the thing to do first is to get the ingredients and then come up with the ideas for how you want to put them together. You don't have to have the pantry as well stocked as mine, the one that you see on Chef at Home, but you do need to have that open-minded, free-styling approach to how you're cooking and a willingness to try new things and to try stirring your own personality in.

Secondly, I think that one of the things that I've learned as a parent certainly is … that 99 per cent of the decisions I make are decisions at the grocery store, not in the kitchen. If you're not bringing home processed food, if you're not bringing home junk, then your kids can't eat junk. Take the time to fill your cart up with lots of fruits and vegetables, lots of whole grains, lots of real dairy and things like that and you'll do just fine when you get home.

I think too that a simple approach works best – sometimes we strive for creativity for creativity's sake when really what we are looking for is something that's simple and tasty and flavourful. You don't have to feel the need or the stress of throwing 90 different things into the pan, usually the best flavour groups are just two or three ingredients working together.

Another thing that you can find quite inspiring is the local connection… I'm thrilled to note that one of the fastest growing trends in the world of food all over North America is our return to local. I'm also thrilled to note that we never really lost that connection on Prince Edward Island, it's one of the things that makes it such a gourmet mecca or a chef's paradise if you will. I'm also very pleased that we're all supporting CSAs – and CSAs are of course Community Supported Agriculture. What that is an opportunity for you to forge a connection locally with somebody in your local community…I strongly believe that when you have that local food connection, it influences your approach to the cooking of the food because you're all of the sudden not just dealing with a commodity, you're dealing with something that's very, very personal and that allows you to treat it simply and respect that simplicity and not feel the stress of having to come up with some outrageous, exotic idea that you may have seen me do in my crazy pantry.

CBC.ca: We have a question from Kari who says, I joined a Community Supported Agriculture for the first time this year. Right now am getting a lot of Asian greens … Any suggestions on how to cook these?

Michael Smith: My wife and her best friend are partners in a market garden, in a CSA. They together are Fortune Organics and this year are now delivering to 75 families in my community. And they include recipes for everything in their box. So, first I would suggest that you reach out to your farmer and ask them if they're going to include an ingredient that is perhaps unfamiliar to you to also include a recipe to go with it.

My favourite way to eat greens is simply to steam them - this goes for all greens, this goes for spinach, this could be any Asian green, this could be beet greens, any green at all. Simply toss them with a sesame dressing – Rachel invented this one, at least in our family. She'll take some tahini (which is sesame paste) and she'll toss that with a little bit of sesame oil (just a few drops – roasted sesame oil is very strong), and she'll squeeze a lemon into it. We're basically making a warm salad here, maybe a splash of olive oil and then toss that quick dressing together with the steamed greens and also toss in some sesame seeds so you get greens with three different sesames.

Think of it as a warm salad, and come up with a great dressing that you like that works for you with other salads and toss it with the greens and no doubt you'll be happy.

CBCNews.ca: Thank you again for taking some time to speak with us.

Michael Smith: It's my pleasure, we hope to see you on Prince Edward Island. We're all excited here, our strawberries are coming into season, the corn will be along soon enough, the lobster is still in season. We've got all kinds of great chefs cooking up a storm. It's the time to come and eat on P.E.I. so come on out and visit.

Summer recipes inspired by Prince Edward Island – brought to you by Chef Michael Smith, host of Food Network’s Chef at Home and Chef Abroad

Prince Edward Island Smoked Salmon with Pasta and Simple Lemon Dill Cream Cheese Sauce

This is one of the most popular dishes on my table. Our friends love its bright, familiar flavours and we love how easy it is to make. You can toss steaming, wet, just cooked pasta with melting cream cheese to form an incredibly smooth luxurious sauce. The smoked salmon adds extravagance balanced by other familiar flavours: dill, lemon, onion, mustard and capers. A five star dish for sharing!

Serves four

1 lb penne or your favourite shaped pasta like bowties, long pastas like spaghetti don’t work as well
1 cup room temperature cream cheese
1 bunch of fresh dill, chopped
4 green onions, sliced
1 lemon, juiced and zested
1 heaping spoonful of Dijon mustard
1/4 cup capers
8 ounces smoked salmon, or more
sprinkled sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. Season it liberally with salt until tastes like a day at the beach on Prince Edward Island. As the pasta cooks it will absorb the salted water and become properly seasoned. Cook al dente, until the pasta is cooked through but still pleasantly chewy.

Scoop out some of the starchy cooking water. Drain the pasta but not quite all the way. Leave it a bit wet. Toss the pasta back into the pot along with a splash or two of the reserved water, perhaps a half-cup or so in total then immediately add the rest of the ingredients. While the pasta is still steaming hot it will easily melt the cream cheese and form a rich creamy sauce. Season with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.

Simply Steamed Island Blue Mussels with Three Different Flavours
Mussels are super simple to cook and travel with their own built-in sauce base. They’re easy to steam and when you do, they release a flavourful broth that many connoisseurs swear is the best part. That broth can be flavoured any way you care too so mussels are also a great ingredient to free style with.

Serves four

Five to six pounds of mussels, rinsed well with lots of cold running water
Choose 1 of the following three flavouring groups:

  • A 12 ounce bottle of your favourite local beer, a sliced onion, a tablespoon of butter
  • 1 cup of orange juice, 1 tablespoon of curry powder
  • 1 cup of whatever wine you’re drinking, 1 tablespoon of mustard, 1 teaspoon of dried thyme, 1 tablespoon of butter

Wash the mussels very well and discard any that are open and wont close with a bit of gentle finger pressure.

Pour the liquid and other aromatic ingredients of your choice into a large pot with a tight fitting lid. Stir to combine and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Add the mussels and cover with the lid. Shake the pot occasionally and cook until all the mussels have opened, ten minutes or so.

Spoon out the mussels into a serving bowl. Strain the remaining liquid to remove any broken shell or lingering sand in it. Serve with the mussels and lots of bread for soaking up the flavourful juice!

Organic Prince Edward Island Field Greens with Apple Vinaigrette & Pumpkin Seeds

A simple greens salad is both healthy and tasty. When you toss it yourself with local organic greens and a homemade dressing it can also be a powerful way to support sustainable food choices.

Serves four

Four handfuls of local, organic field greens
1/2 cup of toasted pumpkin seeds
1/4 cup of canola oil
2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon of local honey
1 teaspoon of any mustard
salt and pepper to taste

In a festive salad bowl, whisk together the oil, vinegar, honey and mustard until they form a smooth dressing. Toss the greens in the dressing until evenly and lightly coated. Sprinkle on the pumpkin seeds and any other of your favourite locally and seasonally inspired salad garnishes!