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Chopped Canada champ shares top kitchen tips for families during Covid

Ideas from East Side Mario’s® Brand Chef, Matt Rosen for family-style meals at home
Chef Matt Photo 1
Chef Matt Rosen, Brand Chef for East Side Mario’s® and past winner of the Food Network's Chopped Canada (supplied photo)

Suffering from cooking fatigue? You’re hardly alone.

After a year in our kitchens, even the keenest home cooks are feeling a bit worn down. We’re well past the initial excitement of sourdough and banana bread, yet must continue to create healthy, nutritious meals for our families. What’s a well-meaning home cook to do?

Enter Matt Rosen, a Chef with an impressive pedigree. Rosen trained at Stratford Chefs School, led a number of high-profile kitchens, was a winner on Food Network’s Chopped Canada and is the Brand Chef for East Side Mario’s®

His advice? To start, we need to take the pressure off.

“I don’t think it’s always the meal as much as the table and who’s around it. For me it’s, are you eating together as a family?” says Rosen.

He advises that we break out of our normal routines. “Maybe find a recipe that you’ve thought about trying, something different that breaks the monotony, to avoid the whole ‘It’s Monday, we’re having chicken and potatoes again.’ I think if you go out of your comfort zone and try something new you can re-energize that part of your life,” he says.

Rosen recommends dishes that are more interactive and fun, like build-your-own taco night. “It’s a great way to clean out any leftovers in your fridge and it gives the kids control over what they’re having. They feel that they can create what they want versus mom and dad putting it on their plate. You can get to some really outstanding combos, plus when you start eating that way it’s a little bit more social and fun.”

The chef and his wife have two boys, aged 13 and 11, and another big hit in their home is build- your-own pizza night. During the day, they prepare the dough to make focaccia and let it proof (rest and rise before baking). Then they treat the focaccia bread like pizza and make a full tray. Each boy dresses one half with their favourite ingredients. It’s an interactive dinner that the kids love—and there’s usually enough leftovers that they’ll have it for breakfast the next day too.

Burger night is always popular. The Rosens make their own, including homemade fries. “We don’t always go chef-y,” he laughs.

He’s a huge proponent of getting kids involved in meal prep. When they help out, they feel ownership over what they’re doing; they’re also more likely to eat what you cook. The rule in the Rosen house is if you’re going to prep something, you have to eat it too. When kids are in the kitchen, you’re giving them a new experience and they learn respect for how hard you work as a parent.

If you do try a new recipe or two, what do you do with the leftover ingredients? Even the most well-meaning and waste-conscious home cooks find themselves with odds and ends from time to time. 

“If you have something you wouldn’t typically eat, like an avocado, you might default to making guacamole or simply slicing it up,” says Rosen. But you could also bread it and deep fry it, grill or roast it. 

A Chef he once worked with used to make lightly sautéed buttered cucumbers. “The way we think about food in North America, we are very centred on ‘this is how we use an ingredient’. But sometimes all it takes is just Googling ‘what to do with zucchini’.”

Everyone takes beets, for example, and pickles or roasts them. At Rosen’s house, they’re julienned into matchsticks. They go on salads throughout the week and they’re amazing, the chef says, like potato chips. “You can even take the beet and shave it paper thin, add salt and olive oil and cure it, and you’ve almost got like a beef carpaccio,” he says.

Use the time you have at home, search online, take a step outside your comfort zone to find a use for that single ingredient that maybe you never thought of and you might even end up with a new favourite dish.

Be sure to plan out something that’s exciting too. Recently the Rosens had some seafood on a Saturday—some mussels and clams, all picked out of the shells. What were they going to do with that? They decided to make a chowder. “Have fun with what you’ve got. Eating can really be a way to express some fun,” says Rosen.

What he describes is the opposite of drudgery. “At the end of the day, go into your kitchen, put on some Otis Redding and a glass of wine and cook for an hour, and you are feeling awesome at the end of it. Then the kids can clean up.” Says the chef, “Cooking can be your spa for the day.”

As for those roasted chicken thighs and potatoes? “We still have our nights. We do a lot of easy dinners because they’re quick, but you need to just break the cycle sometimes. Surprise yourself!”

What’s most important is that you’re together. “Those family meals are so important. It’s that time that you can all sit around and even though you’ve seen each other throughout the day, you can relax and have a good time,” says Rosen. “It’s not necessarily about having those in-depth conversations; sometimes it’s just about fun. When you make it interactive, when the kids are involved and having fun, it can open up a whole new world.” 

And for those times when you just need a night off? East Side Mario’s® offers the Family Pasta Deal for only $39.99, which serves four. The deal includes two of four signature family-sized pastas, a family-sized Garden or Caesar salad and two Garlic Homeloaves, with Italian classic flavours that are sure to please everyone. 

“The family deals are so much food; you’re going to have leftovers for the next day. It’s for a family, but more like an Italian family than your typical Canadian family, in terms of quantity,” says Rosen.

If you’ve been missing dining out, order for delivery or pick-up. “We can bring a slice of that little restaurant world to you.”

For more information, visit East Side Mario's Guelph or call 519-763-7861.

Off-Premise Pasta