A P.E.I. culinary experience

Margaret Prouse
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Restaurant owners and operators have a lot on their plates. They have to pull together a team of full- and part-time staff with both food-handling and interpersonal skills, create food that is delicious, beautiful and safe, use design and décor that enhances the dining experience, constantly advertise and promote to remind people what they have to offer, interact with customers in a way that makes them feel like valued guests and serve meals promptly at a price that pays the bills without scaring away customers.

They also have to deal with food producers and distributors, equipment suppliers, and health inspectors, stay aware of trends and update menus often to keep things interesting. In addition, they have to pay their bills and hope that there’s enough left over to pay themselves.

In Prince Edward Island, there is the added challenge that the year-round population base is small. The influx of seasonal residents and tourists in summer increases the market and signals the beginning of the season that should keep Island restaurants viable.

The other side of the coin, though, is that this small province produces the raw materials that a restaurant needs: some of the best seafood, meat, cheese and produce to be found anywhere. And we also train chefs and other foodservice professionals.

The atmosphere at last week’s Savour Food and Wine Show was celebratory, as the public lined up to see and taste the dishes that members of the P.E.I. Restaurant Association brought for us to sample. Chefs in their whites plated food they must have worked on for hours prior to the show, while they and the well-prepared servers repeated descriptions and answered questions for hungry guests. Well, we were hungry when we arrived, but the offerings were so tempting that I may not have been the only one unable resist the urge to taste more samples than I really needed.

What we tasted did not disappoint. It was interesting to see the big trends interpreted Island-style: local food; artisan cheese and bread; nose to tail dining; foraged foods; chocolate. Frankly, I’m not sure if chocolate is a trend, or an enduring staple, but it showed up on the majority of dessert plates at the savour show.

Lobster may be what comes to mind first when summer visitors go out to eat in P.E.I., and it was presented more traditionally, as well as in some imaginative ways — in tacos with a simple fresh-tasting slaw, on puff pastry, in ravioli and dumplings and spring rolls and even in the crisp and flavourful coating for a Scotch egg. Traditional lobster suppers and meals featuring lobster tails deserve their sustained popularity, but it’s fun to taste the innovative lobster dishes as well.

Other seafood appeared, too, for example shellfish ceviche with scallops and oysters, crab cakes, cod cakes, smoked salmon and crab and lobster spring rolls.

Meat lovers had no worries that seafood would steal the show as beef, lamb and pork were served in a variety of delicious ways. Beef was wrapped up in ravioli, a partner in surf and turf creations, cut into succulent medallions and blackened (in a good way!).

It was amazing to see what Island chefs did with pork! It used to be said that you could use every part of the pork except the squeal, and perhaps they were working on this principle for the show. The everyday staple pork chop was nowhere in sight, but instead we were treated to pork tongue (two ways), crisp pork belly, molten pork pie and even a little lardo.

It is tempting, and somewhat traditional, to think of greens and other vegetables as supporting actors, meant simply to make the protein part of the meal look good. Not so at this show. Fried beet chips, the freshest greens you can imagine, creamy cheesy potato puree, plump crisp young mircogreens and pea shoots did not hide in the background; they were stars in their own right. One of the most interesting was an emerald green puree of wild nettle, served with pork belly.

Artisan cheese, especially Island gouda, appeared at many tasting stations at the show. It played a starring role in grilled cheese. This was no ordinary grilled cheese, but local gouda sandwiched in artisan milk bread, browned to a crunchy toasty crisp, topped with smoked salmon and served with microgreens.

I could neither taste all the dishes offered at the Savour Food and Wine show, nor describe everything I did taste. However, I urge everyone to look for P.E.I.-grown food, prepared thoughtfully and with flair in Island restaurants, whenever a night off is needed from cooking at home.

When you are not indulging in delightful imaginative Island restaurant food, you may find yourself barbecuing. Actually, it can be a good way to stay warm, given the weather we’ve been experiencing lately. If you’re looking for a few ideas for summer grilling and salads, please join me this evening at 6:30 for a go!PEI healthy cooking class at the Cornwall Civic Centre. There is no charge, but register by calling Tracey at 628-6260, extension 228, or sending a note to tmaclean@cornwallpe.ca.

Margaret Prouse, a home economist, can be reached by writing her at RR#2, North Wiltshire, P.E.I., C0A 1Y0, or by email at margaret@islandgusto.com.

Organizations: P.E.I. Restaurant Association, Savour Food, Cornwall Civic Centre

Geographic location: Prince Edward Island, North Wiltshire

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