Richard Nigro didn't plan to become a chef, but when the kitchen came calling, he was ready, willing and able. He credits his Italian mother for his love of delicious food, prepared with care and attention.
Having developed a loyal following as one of the founding chefs at Juniper Kitchen & Wine Bar, Richard is continuing his mission to establish and promote a new Canadian cuisine. He recently embarked on an exciting new culinary journey, exploring artisanal techniques and creative catering.
What were you doing before you decided to become a chef? I was working in Ottawa's art scene and was among a group of artists invited to participate in a SAW Gallery fundraiser at Domus Café. We each had to prepare a dish that was not only delicious, but also visually and intellectually appealing. Afterwards, the owner of Domus was so impressed he offered me a part-time job, which I happily accepted, and 25 years later, I still love being a chef. If that fateful dinner hadn't happened, it's hard to say what my path might have been.
What do you feel are your most essential kitchen tools? My imagination and creativity. My cooking is very much informed by exploring: reading, tasting, travelling and experimenting. I have a huge collection of cookbooks and as I read I absorb information that I can use as a departure point for my own creations. This creativity is essential because otherwise cooking becomes mundane. That's why the menu changed all the time at Juniper, because if a chef is bored, it shows in the food.
What projects are you working on? ?I am doing some customized, creative catering, both traditional gigs and ghost dinners, where people sign up not knowing the venue or the menu. These events give me an opportunity to do some serious cooking and interact with an appreciative audience in a very non-traditional space - like a tattoo parlour or a coffee roastery. I'm also expanding my line of healthful table-ready foods, many vegetarian or gluten-free, now available at Sasloves Meat Market on Wellington Street. As well, I'm developing and marketing a wide range of unique condiments, sauces and rubs, including a special Habanero-Mango Table Sauce exclusively for Stoneface Dolly's - and I'm having fun adapting recipes for home cooks and sharing them on my website (www.richardnigro.com).
Who or what inspires you today in your work? Right now, I am more into rustic, earthy foods. In many ways, a dinner is a dinner and it shouldn't be about the chef and the way a plate is decorated. The food should be approachable; you should be surprised and delighted, but you shouldn't be intimidated by what you are served.
Chef Richard Nigro's Shrimp Sofrito with Roasted Garlic Bread
Richard says that this recipe is a staple in his repertoire. "The first dinner that I cooked for a girl was when I was about 16," he recalls. "I made a version of this shrimp sofrito with crusty bread. I still make variations of this dish today, decades later."
2 tbsp each olive oil and butter
1 each red and Spanish onions cut into 1/4 inch wedges
3 red peppers (or mix of red and yellow peppers) cut into ½-inch strips
2 green peppers cut into ½-inch strips
4 tbsp garlic, minced
4 cups fresh ripe tomatoes, blanched, peeled, seeded and chopped*
1 tsp paprika
¼ to ½ tsp cayenne (to taste)
2 cups feta cheese, crumbled
¼ cup each basil and cilantro, chopped
salt and pepper
1 lb 16x20 sized shrimp - about 16 shrimp ?(4 per person), peeled and deveined
* or canned whole Roma tomatoes, chopped
Prepare the garlic bread and preheat the oven (see below) before you begin the sofrito.
Melt butter and olive oil together in a large sauté pan. Add onions and peppers; toss well to coat in oil, then sauté for several minutes until the mixture has softened and onions have become transparent. Add garlic and continue to cook until onions begin to lightly caramelize. Add tomatoes, cayenne and paprika and continue to cook for another 10 minutes. Put the garlic bread in the preheated oven.
While this is cooking, warm a separate pan over a medium-high heat and then sear the shrimp, about one minute per side. Toss shrimp into the sofrito mixture, add feta and simmer until the cheese has softened and warmed and the shrimp finishes cooking - about 3 minutes. Toss with herbs, taste and add salt or pepper if needed, and serve in four broad, shallow bowls.
Note: As an alternative to shrimp, you can use chicken breast, cut in thin strips, or good quality Italian sausage, sliced into 1-inch thick rounds. Sear as per the shrimp, add to the sofrito mixture and poach to finish cooking, about 5-7 minutes for chicken, or 10-15 minutes for sausage.
ROASTED GARLIC BREAD
1 cup butter at room temperature
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
2-3 heads garlic to make about ½ cup roasted garlic
1 tsp kosher salt
1 loaf crusty Italian bread
Cut the root end off the heads of garlic and place them, cut-side down, in a small roasting pan or ovenproof dish. Drizzle ¼ cup of olive oil over garlic, cover with foil and roast at 350 F for 25-30 minutes, until the garlic is soft. Cool, pinch the pulp out of the papery skin and use a fork to mash the garlic with the butter, remaining olive oil and half the salt. Taste and add more salt if desired.
To assemble, slice the loaf, but not all the way through - leave the crust intact on the bottom. Butter both sides of each bread slice generously with the butter mixture, wrap in foil and warm in a 350 F oven for about 10 minutes. Pull it apart at the table and use to mop up the delicious sofrito broth.