To the Point with Chef Anna Olson

Anna Olson portrait Hudson's Bay

The Food Network star shares her passion for everything seasonal along with a few irresistible recipes.

Earlier this month, beloved chef Anna Olson visited Hudson’s Bay Queen Street to meet fans and demonstrate two of her favourite summer recipes. The Point had a chance to sit down with Anna to discuss why we should be excited about local, seasonal produce (and what to do with it), and we even learned a little Japanese. Read on to learn about umami and umeboshi, and other ways to impress your guests.

How did you decide what to make for your At Home at Hudson’s Bay event today?
I knew I wanted to do something savoury and something sweet. I wanted to do recipes that suit the season, so that’s why I picked the sweet potato soup with the coconut milk and ginger additions. It’s a soup you can serve warm or cold. If it’s a rainy day, warm up the soup. If it’s a hot day, chill it down and it’s refreshing.

The cupcake recipe is a basic banana cupcake, and while bananas aren’t local, it makes for a nice, moist cupcake that stays fresh for days. So, if you’re bringing it up for a weekend away or to someone’s house, you can make it a day ahead and it’s not going to go stale. Once I learned that local strawberries are going to be available, I thought we have to showcase the fruit of the moment right now.

Tell us more about these cupcakes.
I love working with the seasons, so you can take a staple recipe and make it work through the entire summer season, depending on the in-season accents. So, something as simple as a basic cupcake can be changed easily by the type of frosting or the addition of a fruit that you put on top of it. Right now we’re in strawberry season, but in three weeks fresh local cherries will come up. Then you move into raspberries and blueberries, then peaches. So, all of the sudden you can feed the same recipe to the same people with a new fruit addition. And that goes for a lot of the cakes I make, from fruit-filled cakes to using fruit garnishes, or even something as simple as a panna cotta with the fruit you serve on the side. You move with the seasons.

Is there an essential piece of equipment for making cupcakes?
When it comes to cake making, you can’t do without a stand mixer, so get comfortable with the attachments and how to use them. I’ve been using a KitchenAid mixer in professional kitchens and my home kitchen as long as I can remember. I even have my grandmother’s vintage one on display.

KitchenAid Artisan Stand Mixer

How has the stand mixer evolved since your grandmother’s model?
My grandmother’s I only use for egg whites and whipped cream because the motor is pretty fragile, but the versatility and all the attachments you can buy for the newer models really help. KitchenAid has a new attachment called a “sheeter.” Just like how sushi chefs can unroll a cucumber like a carpet in a single sheet. This attachment does that, so you can feed in zucchini or cucumbers to get these sheets and shapes. It’s fun in the summertime to have cool treats like that. Try freezing the cucumber cut-out shapes and drop them in your ice water.

Anna Olson with KichenAid stand mixer

How do you like to serve a festive drink, whether cucumber water or cocktail?
In something fun and playful. My go-to glasses at home are the Riedel O champagne glasses, the stemless ones. They are glass, so they’re not for the poolside, but for the deck or patio. I like them because patio entertaining is supposed to be more casual, but it’s a champagne flute, so it has that elegant line to it and it sets the table nicely.

You don’t have to limit it to champagne. If you’re doing iced tea or lemonade, or soup sippers like gazpacho. The sweet potato soup with coconut milk and ginger I’m making today will be served warm, it’s one of those soups that when chilled is just as delicious.

Riedel O Champagne Stemless Glasses Set

Are there other small appliances in your kitchen that do a lot of heavy lifting?
Having a good blender for the cocktail world really counts, and that’s where the Vitamix comes in. Some blenders can’t crush ice and the key with crushing ice is to do it quickly so it doesn’t turn watery. With the Vitamix, you barely turn it on and it evenly blends. For pureeing soups, like if you’re making gazpacho or today’s sweet potato soup, the Vitamix turns it smooth so quickly that you don’t need to strain it. One of the big conversations right now is about avoiding food waste, and so straining the soup  means you’re making it smoother and easier to eat, but yet you have all this food product left, so if you use a Vitamix you don’t even have to bother. You’re getting full nutrient value and you’re not wasting food, which I think is very important.

Anna Olson cooking with Le Creuset

How is easy is to transition from gazpacho to cocktail mode with a Vitamix?
What I do is put a little dish soup and hot water up to the fill line in the Vitamix and I run it with the soapy water. It gets any residue in there so you don’t get any tomato bits in your French 75.

Shop the Vitamix Collection at thebay.com

Do you have ideas for summer potlucks? Something quick and easy to make in quantity.
Going back to the seasonality – and I think people know me for that – recognizing, wherever you are in the country, that we have good local seasonal produce, and learning what those are in season. So, a crudité plate is not about the little rolled baby carrot bits and raw broccoli pieces anymore. When you go to a potluck there’s always that plastic, grocery-store crudité platter. You can really get sophisticated because we have such beautiful produce this time of year.

There are the multicolour little baby heirloom carrots, but also crudité does not have to be completely raw; you can par-cook things. I love doing a crudité platter, boiling little fresh market mini potatoes; they’re sweet like candy. You just boil them whole. When green beans come in season in about a month, you can blanche them for just thirty seconds in boiling water – it brings out the colour and cooks them so it’s more palatable – and then you shock them in ice water.

They’re great for dipping, and something that’s good to dip is bagna cauda. It’s a garlicky, anchovy, lemony dipping sauce that you serve warm. One of my products is a little tapas fondue pot with a tealight to keep it warm. So, you have this beautiful arrangement of market vegetabes – and don’t forget cabbage — it sounds underwhelming, but when you’re dipping crunchy pieces of cabbage in this warm, salty olive oil mixture, it’s so satisfying.

Boska Concrete Tapas Small Fondue Set

And this is all make-ahead. Say you buy the ingredients at the market on Saturday morning, it’s best to take care of those ingredients as you’re putting them away in the fridge. As I bring everything home, I get that pot of water on the boil. I use a spider or strainer spoon. I drop in the beans, pull them out into the ice water. Drop in the potatoes, cook those and bring them out. I even do hard-boiled eggs at the same time.

We’ve heard you’re a fan of fermenting at home. Would you mix pickles in with crudité?
I certainly would, and it’s a great way to celebrate the season. It’s only in summertime that locally you can get those little pickling cucumbers, the small ones. Those are ideal. The difference between vinegar pickles and fermented pickles is the umami, the depth of flavour we get on our palate. If you do vinegar pickles, you boil vinegar and water with salt and pickling spice mix, you put the cucumbers in the jar and you pour the liquid over. After two weeks, you have osmosis: the vinegar goes into the cucumber, the water goes out, and you get a nice, crunchy pickle.

When you ferment pickles, and the nice thing with a tabletop fermenter is you’re not making grandma-sized batches with the twenty-litre ceramic crock outside and potential for disaster. You can do four litres.

Go to the market, buy two quarts of these little pickles, cut them in half – and this is where the scale comes in handy, because you need to have the weight of the cucumber and the salt in the right proportion: two percent salt to the weight of the pickles. So, if you have a kilogram of pickles, you need 20 grams of salt. That’s why the scale is important for preserving season. You need that precision – Then what happens is you layer the salt in with the pickles, let the fermenting crock sit on the counter anywhere, depending on heat and humidity outside, from two days to twelve days. Keep it out of direct sunlight and what happens is that salt is hydroscopic – it draws moisture to it – it pulls all the water out of the cucumber, the salt goes in, so that’s how it preserves it. Then the next stage – and this is why it makes it like a kosher dill with the depth of flavour, it’s called malolactic fermentation – that liquid in the crock turns into vinegar and that’s what preserves the pickles. Instead of adding white distilled vinegar, it creates the vinegar.

Cuisinart Basic Digital Kitchen Scale

Do keep an eye on it, and don’t touch the liquid. Stir it once in a while with a metal spoon. If your finger comes in contact with the liquid, you might get a white film on the surface. That’s not bad. If it’s blue, black or red, then it’s bad. The nice thing is, the fermenter comes with all these instructions.

Once you taste a pickle, if you’re happy with it (a half sour only goes a couple days. The full sour goes the complete fermentation period), put the whole crock in the fridge. You can do kim chi the same way. You can also do it with peppers.

Living where I do, I have access to fruit trees. Part of the process of growing peaches and apricots is thinning the fruit. If there is a cluster of peaches, you take away two of the four so those two have room to grow into full-size peaches. Normally that fruit is left on the ground to feed the soil, but if you take those fruits and score them, you can salt ferment them the same way. Japanese pickled plums called umeboshi are unripe plums fermented until they’re really sour with shiso leaf added.

Mortier Pilon Fermentation Crock

Let’s talk refreshment. Cold brew is now served at everyone’s favourite coffeeshop. Can you make it at home?
Summertime is about cold beverages, and a cold brew pitcher makes it easier than taking the leftover coffee from the coffeepot or Bodum or however you brew your hot coffee. I always have iced tea and iced coffee in the fridge, because sometimes when you wake up in the morning, you don’t want hot coffee, but you need the potency. I’ll throw in things like a little pinch of cinnamon right into the coffee pitcher, and it infuses without being overwhelming. If you did that with hot coffee, you would get cinnamon first, but here you can really play with the flavours and it’s subtle because of the cold brew.

On a side note, related to cooking, cold brew coffee is great if a recipe calls for espresso powder or a shot of espresso. If you have cold brew on hand, you can pull it from the fridge rather than having to wait for the espresso to brew.

Core Home Cold Brew Pitcher

Tell us how you’ve reinvented waffles for summer.
For me, waffles are a weekend summer thing. I tend not to make them for breakfast; I make them for dessert. What I love to do is make ice cream sandwiches from the waffles, and I make fruit ice cream. Or I simply top them with a scoop of good vanilla ice cream and fresh peaches. I do a lemon cornmeal buttermilk waffle, so it gets really crunchy.

And I love Liege waffles, which are the yeast-raised ones, and they have crushed sugar cubes in them. For a waffle iron that’s round with the four corners and the cross in the centre, you make the waffles one at a time. Put the ball of dough in the middle where the cross is, and those sugar bits caramelize on the outside.

In the summertime you want activities, and you stretch that evening as long as you can. So, I’ll make up the batter and everyone makes their own waffles and assembles their own sandwiches.

Breville the No Mess Waffle Maker

Have you learned anything from cooking on television that you’ve brought home?
I would say organizational skills, though being a baker by trade, you tend to organize. Your day rolls out because you structure it, knowing what needs time to rest, chill, bake, etc. But there’s definitely a frenetic organization when it comes to a cooking show, because you have to keep things on schedule.

I love prep lists.

Anna Alson signing cookbook

What sorts of things are on your lists?
It just means thinking ahead a little bit. I write my shopping list, and if I’m going to the grocery store I even organize my shopping list by the way I walk through the grocery store – produce, dry goods, protein, dairy, other – so you don’t miss anything. That’s step one.

But especially for summertime entertaining, you want to be a guest at your own party. You don’t want to be in the kitchen while everyone else is outside having fun. So that’s where doing the list of what you can make a day or two days ahead, what you can make that morning, what you can do last-minute, and then if you’re planning a menu, you can see if there are too many last-minute things. Simple things like blanching vegetables you can do hours ahead, because once you’ve run it under cold water, you can put it in a bag and store it in the fridge.

Pick the low-and-slow barbecue as opposed to steaks, which you have to pay attention to, because you know you’re going to be distracted. No one is going to be mad at you if you overcook the chicken a little bit. If you overcook the steak, you’ll be mad because you spent all that money. Ribs only get better when they’re cooked longer, so that’s a great make-ahead.

Soup in Riedel O stemless champagne flutes

Recipe: Sweet Potato Soup with Coconut Milk

Created by Anna Olson

Servings: 6
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cooking Time: 25 minutes

2 Tbsp butter
1 1/3 cups diced onion
6 cups peeled and diced sweet potato
2 Tbsp grated fresh ginger
398 mL coconut milk
3 to 4 cups chicken or vegetable stock
2 fresh lime juice
Salt and pepper
A pinch of cayenne pepper or hot sauce (optional)
Fresh coriander leaves and yoghurt, for garnish

1. Melt the butter in a large saucepot over medium heat and cook the onion 3-4 minutes to soften, but not browned. Add the sweet potato, ginger, coconut milk and 3 cups of stock. Simmer about 20 minutes, until sweet potatoes are tender.

Purée until smooth with a hand blender or regular blender, adding the remaining stock if soup is too thick. Stir in the lime juice and strain (straining is optional). Return to the heat and season to taste. Ladle into bowls and top with coriander leaves and a swirl of yogurt. Soup can be enjoyed warm or chilled.

Anna Olson makes strawberry banana cupcakes

Recipe: Strawberry Topped Banana Cupcakes
Created by Anna Olson

Servings: 36
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cooking Time: 25 minutes

Cake Ingredients
½ cup unsalted butter
¼ cup vegetable oil
2 cups granulated sugar
Zest of 1 lemon
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
1 ½ cups buttermilk
3 large eggs
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 ½ cups mashed very ripe bananas
Juice of 1 lemon

Frosting Ingredients
1 cup unsalted butter
1 ½ cups cream cheese
4 cups icing sugar, sifted
1 Tbsp vanilla extract
Fresh strawberries, for garnish

1. Preheat the oven to 325 °F (160 °C) and line 3 muffin tins with cupcake liners (or bake in batches).

Using electric beaters or a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter, oil and lemon zest on medium high speed until fluffy and pale, about 2 minutes.

In a separate bowl, sift the flour, baking powder and salt together. In another bowl whisk the buttermilk, eggs and vanilla together. Add the flour and buttermilk to the batter alternatingly, mixing well on low speed after each addition and starting and ending with the flour.

Stir the mashed banana with the lemon juice and stir this into the batter by hand. Scoop the batter into the cupcake liners and bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until a tester inserted in the centre of a cupcake comes out clean. Cool the cupcakes on a rack before frosting.

For the frosting, beat the butter and cream cheese for about 3 minutes or until fluffy. Add the icing sugar and vanilla and beat gently until the sugar is incorporated, then increase the speed and continue beating until fluffy, about 2 more minutes. Dollop or pipe the frosting onto each cupcake and top each with a strawberry just before serving.

Photography by David Pike. Recipes courtesy of Anna Olson.