Chef Aicha Smith uses classic ingredients and techniques to make a nutritious soup: Andrew Coppolino
Smith is a self-taught chef and entrepreneur who started Esha's Eats Catering 18 months ago
The family setting, specifically the family kitchen, is where chef Aicha Smith gained an early appreciation for food and cooking.
"I'm not a formally trained chef," says Smith, 27. "I'm self-taught. I'm actually pretty nosy and we have a huge family who cooked all of the time. To know the latest gossip, you had to be in the kitchen cooking."
Smith, who gave a cooking demonstration at CBC K-W's Sounds of the Season show on Friday, also says that she used to spend time watching her father, a professional chef, when he was working.
"He let me sit in the back of his kitchen when I was really young and watch him run service."
Brantford-born, Smith is from Six Nations of the Grand River Territory. She attended Assumption College, the University of Waterloo, as well as Mohawk College.
Her culinary training though, has been on the job.
"For much of my life, I've worked on cooking large amounts of food for people, often supporting church and community fundraising," she says.
About 18 months ago, she made the entrepreneurial leap and opened her catering business, Esha's Eats.
That happened when she was doing seasonal work in archeology and her employment stopped during the winter; she says she didn't want to go back to a "normal" job.
"I started my business slowly cooking for friends here and there and soon was catering full time."
That includes both cooking for banquets and conventional catering fare but, she adds quickly, that she's not locked into one style.
Her tomato and red pepper soup, prepared for the Sounds of the Season cooking segment (recipe below), draws on classic ingredients and techniques to make a simple and nutritious soup for a family to enjoy.
Yet, the preparation represents only a part of her culinary interests and background.
"I've focused on Haudenosaunee-inspired menus with pre-contact ingredients. It's cooking with ingredients that we would have as indigenous people," says Smith.
"I take those ingredients and develop recipes from there thinking outside the normal construct of what those recipes would be."
It speaks to Smith's inventiveness as a young cook.
For example, she uses Haudenosaunee white corn which requires a process using ash that puffs up the corn and boosts its calcium content.
"That can be ground down into a flour. I prepared a vegan dish for a client using the corn that was substantial and had characteristics of the season," she says.
Connecting history with the present
To make the dish, Smith roasted a butternut squash, a traditional North American ingredient, and used the spices that you would use for a turkey.
"I mixed the white corn flour with mushrooms making it very savoury and the texture was much like polenta. I stuffed the roasted squash with the mixture and topped it with dried cranberries."
Smith adds that Indigenous chefs are creating what she calls "some astonishing dishes," and it represents the growing interest in the cuisine. At the same time it also reveals how it forms the basis for the way many people are eating today.
"A lot of Indigenous food coincides with veganism, vegetarianism and paleo diets. That's how we ate naturally with the ingredients that came from the earth," Smith says, stating that she tries to connect history with the present.
In way, it's much like her former work in archeology.
"I want to manipulate those traditional ingredients and be able to elevate them, turn them into something that's a new format yet maintains its roots within our history."
6 to 8 red bell peppers
5 to 7 garlic cloves
1/3 cup olive oil
1 Spanish onion
2 large cans diced tomatoes
Salt and pepper to taste
Roast the red peppers over flame until completely black. Carefully, put the peppers put into a bowl with cold water. When cool enough to handle, remove the charred skin.
If you do not have a flame for roasting, pre-heat your oven to 350-degrees F.
Rub the peppers with some oil and arrange them on a sheet pan. Roast them for 15-20 minutes or until fully blackened.
Rinse the peeled peppers, core and remove the seeds and membrane and chop them. Reserve.
Next, chop onions and garlic. In a large saucepan on medium heat, add olive oil and sauté the garlic and onions together with a dash of salt and pepper until the onions are translucent.
Do not burn the onions or garlic. Add the chopped red peppers to the onion mixture along with diced tomatoes. Cook for 10 minutes.
Put the mixture into a blender and blend until smooth. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve.