A cornucopia of Canadian proteins and produce was on display April 16, at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, when chefs from six Canadian universities took part in the Flavours of Canada guest chef event in the university's Hampshire Dining Commons.
“The Flavours of Canada event is a great opportunity to strengthen relations with our northerly neighbors, promote regional, sustainable and healthy cuisine, and introduce Canadian culture to our student body,” said Ken Toong, Executive Director of Auxiliary Enterprises at UMass, whose Dining Services department stages many events throughout the year to showcase cuisines from around the world. "This is the fifth year we've held this dinner, and it is always one of our most popular events."
That was evident from the turnout: More than 3,000 students descended on Hampshire for the event, which took place from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. More than 30 early arrivals stood on line at serving stations for as long as 15 minutes, waiting for the dinner service to begin.
The chefs did not disappoint, offering 35 entrees, salads, side dishes and desserts that showed off the plethora of ingredients available from the provinces of Quebec, Ontario and Saskatchewan.
This year's featured chefs were Oliver de Volpi, from McGill University in Montreal; Stacey Blois, from Western University in London, Ontario; Russell Weir, from Algonquin College in Ottawa, Ontario; Denise McMaster, from the University of Waterloo, Ontario; Vijay Nair, from the University of Guelph, Ontario, and James McFarland, from the University of Saskatchewan, in Saskatoon.
In addition to Canadian culinary specialties, the evening featured ice carvings created by Chef Ross Baisas from Montreal, and the opportunity for students to have their pictures taken with two Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
This year, the unwritten theme of the event was to tout local foods. For Oliver de Volpi, a veteran of three Flavours of Canada events, this meant "showing off all things Quebec"--including poutine, the Quebecois creation of french fries and cheese curds smothered in brown gravy. McGill's team offered three variations: traditional, lobster and vegetarian mushroom miso. McGill's menu also included maple spiced Arctic char, and beef short rib "pate chinois," or stew.
But perhaps the most popular of McGill's offerings was de Volpi's maple taffy on ice, a simple dish of maple syrup, reduced by more than half and poured in strips over shaved ice. To eat it, you dip a popsicle stick in one end of the maple syrup and roll it around the stick. de Volpi said he is always amazed by how well the treat goes over with the students.
"You would think, with the university [of Massachusetts] being so close to Vermont, that the students would all know about this," he explained. "But they come over, wanting to know what this is, and they can't get enough of it."
James McFarland's team from Saskatchewan promoted bison with sour cherry-balsamic braised bison short ribs; local mushrooms and lentils in a prairie wild mushroom and lentil pavé with sweet potato puree; and steelhead trout from Lake Diefenbaker in southern Saskatchewan in a Canadian bouillabaisse that also featured Prince Edward Island mussels and scallops.
McFarland also showcased local chick peas in a Kale Caesar salad, toasting the chick peas in camelia oil, another local product. "Camelia oil is similar to canola oil, but it has more omega-3's and has a higher smoke point," McFarland explained.
The four Ontario schools offered even more variety of proteins and vegetables. For example, Algonquin's team dished up ragout of pheasant served over bannock bread; and pan-fried pickerel served over a roasted corn and wild rice succotash.
Western University's offerings included Lake Erie Isles perch over potato latkes and a braised beef brisket slider topped with balsamic bacon, onion relish and goat cheese and served on brioche.
Among Waterloo University's menu choices were pan-seared chicken breast with an Ontario wild mushroom and fresh herb jus, apple cider-marinated pork belly served with a maple gastrique, and an arugula salad served with Woolwich goat cheese, dried cherries and toasted pumpkin seeds.
The University of Guelph offered up a turkey burger with candied bacon and jalapeno havarti, and a lentil and bean cake served with a roasted pepper and tomato sauce, among other items.
A central dessert area offered, in addition to the maple taffy, Saskatoon berry bannock bread pudding with maple rum caramel, Ocktoberfest Cheesecake--a beer nut praline cheesecake finished with a maple crème anglaise--and a warm apple cake with cinnamon ice cream, among other treats.
Algonquin's chef, Russell Weir, was taking part in the dinner for the first time, and said he was already excited to come back next year. "This is a great event," Weir said. "The students really get into this. They ask questions and they really enjoy the food."