Curt Jensen is happiest when he’s cooking for family, friends, the neighbourhood and the community.
“I was the baby of four children and I got into helping Mom cook. She couldn’t keep me out of the kitchen so she thought she’d teach me. The first meal I ever made for the family was spaghetti and I liked making cookies and snacks for my hockey team,” he said.
There was a time when hockey was a career possibility. He got to the point of being protected by the WHL and played until he was 21 but cooking was also calling.
“I got my first job cooking burgers and fries at Frosty’s in my hometown, Stonewall, Man., when I was 14. It was a hangout joint for the area and I’ve always liked serving people and seeing them happy with the product I can connect them with,” said the 40-year-old father of two, whose day job is now sales manager of Vernon KIA.
He’s preparing his special salad, featuring prawns, bacon roses, bruschetta and his own dressing, as he talks, snipping some basil leaves from the plant growing in the windowsill of the bright kitchen he shares with wife Ellie, daughter Ivy, seven, and son Nolan, six.
“My wife is an amazing cook and she brings out the inspiration in me. She’s always finding new recipes for me to try. The kids love cooking too. My daughter makes pancakes with me every Sunday morning and my son helps turn them. She makes me eggs with avocado and tomato. Both the kids like fruit and vegetables for snacks and they eat everything I cook. We have fun cooking together. Why shouldn’t cooking be fun?”
After a stint at Chicken Delight in Stonewall, the still teenaged Jensen got a chance to work in the kitchen at the Viscount Gort Hotel in Winnipeg and he’s still grateful.
“My brother’s wife’s dad Mike Papageorgiou owned the hotel. I learned so much there. We’d have a big buffet and some nights I’d find myself stuffing 200 Cornish hens with wild rice. The head chef taught me how to make perfect muffins. And I learned about presentation — if something looks good, you’re going to want to eat it.”
Next, he moved to Alberta and started working in and managing bars that had restaurants, including one that taught him how to make jerk chicken and a drink called Jamaican Me Crazy.
“I enjoyed seeing people enjoying what I did,” he said, recalling a special trick which involved 151-proof rum, a lighter and blowing flames across the bar top in a blaze of glory.
He takes a few minutes to check the beef jerky he has smoking on the deck where there is also a large barbecue.
“I have five barbecues for all occasions, home, camping, picnics, you name it,” he laughed.
Jensen went into sales to have more regular hours but his was still the place where hopeful, hungry people would just happen to drop by around meal times. Then he started selling cars.
“The team (at Vernon KIA) is a lot of fun. I make cupcakes for my coworkers on their birthdays and for special clients, who sometimes bring me produce from their gardens.”
Jensen shares his cooking skills on his show, Meat Mondays with Culinary Curt, on Sun FM radio. It started quite by accident when he was living on his own when he first came to Vernon and was waiting for his family to join him. He made beef jerky for his landlord, Brian Martin, who works at the radio station. Martin and co-host Betty Selin liked the results so much they asked him to do a show.
“At first it seemed funny, talking about cooking on the radio but the pictures and recipes are on Facebook. I make a new recipe for the family every Sunday for the show. I meet a lot of people who recognize me just from my voice, once even someone at a dark campsite where we were staying. People tell me they try the recipes, which is great.”
Many people in the community might have already had a taste of Jensen’s cooking. He was on the barbecue from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m. helping keep the participants in the Relay for Life at Polson Park going overnight. He also cooks for his son’s hockey team and other local events, including barbecue potlucks with lucky neighbours who live his cul-de-sac. But you need a special invitation to go to the annual family and friends 10-day fishing tournament in Northern Manitoba where Jensen does all the cooking for the camp.
He goes out to check the jerky again. Culinary Curt’s Jerky, which takes nine hours to prepare, should be on the local market later this year when all the paperwork is completed.
As he assembles the salad, Jensen thinks more about how he first got interested in cooking.
“Definitely my parents, Ray and Doriene Jensen. My mother was an adventurous cook for the time and she’d usually share her recipes. But she wouldn’t give me her mushroom recipe until I got married. I still don’t know why.”
He loves the family favourites but he’s always trying something new. For the radio show, he’s made seared crocodile with cilantro sauce, cabbage with garlic and olive oil, a three-pound hamburger and bacon vanilla milkshakes.
“I’m always checking the stores for new ingredients. I’ve been known to be shopping at nine at night, figuring out what I can make next. My only advice would be to follow the recipe the first time and then see what you want to change and adapt to the people you’re feeding,” he said. “It’s fun for me to be in my kitchen and then watch people enjoy what I cook. Food brings everyone together. It’s all about good friends and good food.”
Culinary Curt’s Bruschetta Spinach Salad with Bacon Roses & Lemon Garlic Prawns
2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
4 tbsp. of freshly grated parmesan cheese
2 (or more) tbsp. of freshly chopped basil
3 vine-ripened tomatoes, diced
1-2 cloves garlic, crushed
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste (reserve for adding at the time of serving)
Mix all ingredients together except the salt and pepper. Let sit in your fridge overnight (few hours minimum) to marinade for best flavour. Add salt and pepper just before serving so the salt doesn’t draw too much moisture out of tomatoes and so the pepper doesn’t go bitter.
Your favorite thick cut bacon
Heat oven to 350F
Cover cookie sheet with parchment.
Roll bacon from end to end, overlapping but let one end stick up a bit. Put tooth picks through your bacon in a criss cross to make sure the rose holds in place. Place on covered cookie sheet and bake slowly so the bacon cooks evenly. Remove from grease and place on paper towel to allow grease to drain off. Set aside and let cool; once cool take out tooth picks.
Crostini is just a fancy word for toasted baguette slices. Just slice baguette (thin for salad), brush with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper and toast until golden. Let cool.
Lemon Garlic Prawns
1 clove garlic
Freshly squeezed lemon juice, to taste
Just before serving, melt butter in pan at med-high heat with 1 clove crushed garlic. Let butter cook down a bit until some of the moisture is drawn out and it starts to foam. Add prawns. Cook for 3-5 min. until they turn pink on both sides. Be careful not to over cook them or they will become chewy and tough. Squeeze fresh lemon juice over prawns just before removing from pan.
Putting together the salad
Fresh spinach leaves
All other ingredients prepared
Toss spinach leaves in a bit of the bruschetta and place salad slightly to one side of plate. Spoon lots of bruschetta onto salad in 3 spots before placing a bacon rose in the centre of each. On the empty portion of the plate, spoon out 3 more portions of bruschetta. Arrange the prawns on top of the bruschetta in the shape of hearts. Place crostini on the sides of salad. Drizzle balsamic reduction over salad.