Nina Ruelens is in a good place in her life. She is working in a beautiful setting. She has added twelve mature people to her staff and has built up a work environment that celebrates both creativity and fun. This February, she won the Best Soup award at Hamilton’s Soupfest event for the third time(definitely no mean feat!) and in a few weeks she will be defending her 2012 title for Best Food and Best Overall Experience at Hamilton’s up-coming Food and Drink Festival. (This year she will be featuring spaghetti and meatballs with smoked provolone, although she wants to assure her fans that, “We always have broccoli cheddar soup, because the owner of Copetown Woods is a broccoli farmer.”) No wonder she exudes an aura of confidence and energy.
Ruelens, who recently presided over one of our Go Cooking sessions, is the Executive Chef at the 4th Course Bistro at the Copetown Woods Golf Club. The Golf Club looks magnificent — in that spacious, well-groomed way that golf courses do. It was established in 2003 on 200 acres of rolling farmland along Concession 2 and, although I really know nothing of golf or golf courses, pictures of the place on the website look like something from “Country Life” magazine. (www.copetownwoods.com/location) The restaurant itself would definitely be worthy of a visit — even for non-golfers — and it is open seven days a week during the golf season for breakfast, lunch and dinner. (Yes, there’s always Barry’s Brand Broccoli on the menu.) Reservations are recommended.
Ruelens has been working at Copetown Woods for three years now, but Hamiltonians may remember her from her small restaurant at the corner of Locke and Main called Nina’s Bistro. Cooking has been her passion since childhood. Her mother, she recalls, wasn’t very interested in food and so she often cooked for the family when she was a child. She loved being in the kitchen so much that she says, “One day I woke up and said to myself, why don’t I do this for a career.” She earned her chef’s papers at Liaison College. Despite her remarkable reputation as a “super soup maker,” she claims that her real speciality is crab cakes.
At our recent Go Cooking session her menu included a pear, bacon and fig pizza with gorgonzola, an intriguing combination of flavours and a chocolate cake with peanut butter filling (Is there anything more scrumptious than chocolate and peanut butter?). But the star of the evening was the soup, a return riff on this year’s Soupfest award winner. I’m including the soup recipe because this was such a divine creation — I was supposed to be taking pictures that evening, but couldn’t stop slurping it up. Nothing difficult to do, no hard to find ingredients, but an absolutely superb melding of flavours and textures and a perfect balance of acidic tang and cheesy mellowness. The soup was paired with a medium dry, deep ruby red, Tommasi Valpolicella Ripasso (LCBO #267070) chosen by our sommelier, Peter Kline from Bacchus Sommelier Services. This was a surprising choice because the soup contains white wine, but it worked out just fine.
Anyway, you can cheer Nina on at the Food and Drink Fest on April 12th, 13th and 14th at Hamilton’s Careport Centre. I’m sure that all of our food-loving readers already will know about this event — it’s the biggest food and drink festival of the year in Hamilton — with lots of participation from our Go Cooking restaurants. But it’s also a great opportunity to try out some new places, meet some chefs, experience some new vintages and beers and have a really good time. Anyway, in case you’ve been living under a cabbage leaf or on vacation in Timbuktu for the last few weeks, everything you need to know about the Festival is available at their website http://www.foodanddrinkfest.com. (Spectator readers will find a $5 off coupon in the Monday, Go section.)
Roasted Tomato & Pancetta Soup with Mascarpone
from Chef Nina Ruelens, 4th Course Bistro, Copetown Woods Golf Course
8 oz. pancetta
1/3 cup flour
8 oz. white wine
8 oz. chicken stock
60 oz. good quality puréed canned tomatoes
20 oz. roasted red peppers, puréed
1/2 tub mascarpone cheese
1. Sauté the pancetta in a small amount of olive oil.
2. When the pancetta becomes slightly crisp, add the flour to absorb the fat.
3. Cook for 2 minutes.
4. Slowly add the white wine and chicken stock.
5. Add tomatoes and peppers.
6. Simmer for about 30 minutes.
7. Add the mascarpone cheese.
8. Stir until melted (the cheese will work better if it is room temperature before adding to the soup).
9. Season with sea salt and fresh cracked pepper.
Tip: If you find it slightly acidic, add a pinch of sugar. At Soupfest this was served with a smoked provolone grilled cheese on sourdough.