Mark McEwan is used to large numbers. In fact he's famous for it. The Toronto chef and restaurateur has reached star status catering to challenging groups and celebrities alike on his reality show The Heat, now in its second season on Food Network. The behind the scenes drama follows McEwan as he caters dinners as massive as 1,200 and as intimate as a 100-seater for famed crooners like Michael Bublé, Paul Anka and Andrea Bocelli, all the while juggling his three Toronto restaurants, North 44, Bymark and new hot spot One.
How does he manage? It's all in the preparation work, says the family man (he and his wife, Roxanne, have two grown children, including a son who works with him), advice we could all use when it comes to entertaining over the holidays. "The more you can do ahead of time and the more interesting you can make it, the more you're going to actually enjoy your own party," he says. "I really believe that having just a modest and well done meal, great wine and great conversation is better than putting on a spread that is just going to kill you. You don't have to spend the whole day shackled to the stove."
For a main dish, McEwan likes a simple veal roast. "Put a good rub on it, sear it and cook it in the oven to a nice pink, using garlic, rosemary, sea salt and pepper. You could make a fresh applesauce for that, which could be done ahead of time. Then do a simple spun potato, like a mashed potato, with a few drops of trufﬂe oil and chive in it."
It's a meat-and-potatoes approach that speaks to his affinity for the classics. "My approach isn't all that complicated," says McEwan, comparing his style to today's obsession with fusion and molecular gastronomy. "When you combine odd ingredients, they always sound exotic, but they're really not any different. The older I get, the less I appreciate that sort of thing. You tire of it very quickly, I find. Whereas the classics you don't."
The organic gardening enthusiast is also serious about market-fresh ingredients. "Whatever you're doing should be seasonal," he says, recommending a squash side for the holidays. "Cut large chunks from an acorn squash and roast them up 'til they're nice and caramelized and soft. It's just a beautiful plate."
But if you're looking for something out of the ordinary for your holiday party, McEwan recommends a gnocchi dish that is sure to impress: "The gnocchi is for the cook who really likes to cook," he says. "It's a touch more involved, but it's a very humble recipe." To maximize entertaining time, McEwan suggests prepping them the day before, then pan-frying them the day of and popping them in the oven for two minutes before serving.
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