Toronto’s Zeus are a delightfully tuneful pop/rock group with a healthy affection for retro melodies and a sunny, laid-back vibe. The band just released a new album, cheekily titled Classic Zeus, and are touring through Canada and parts of the U.S. over the next month or so, including a show in our hometown of Calgary tonight (September 17!).
While they were en route from the West Coast to Nelson B.C. earlier this week, I caught up with Zeus’ Carlin Nicholson, a man who knows his food. Raised in a household where family dinners were key, Carlin learned to cook amazing food from his parents, and it’s something he’s passing down to his own young family. Here’s what he had to say about food, family, and creativity in the kitchen:
Rolling Spoon: Are you a cook?
Carlin Nicholson: I have a family of four so I’m cooking every single day. Lots of barbeque work, I barbeque 365 days a year. It’s a cheap way to get food on the table too.
Have you always been interested in cooking?
I’ve always loved it. I have worked in restaurants, which I haven’t enjoyed as much, because you’re making all of these wonderful dishes for faceless people and you’re usually in a rush. I like to spend a lot of time and hone different recipes. I took a lot of cues from my Dad who was a big time barbeque-r and he made pizza at home and this chicken he’d make during football games and chili, and this pork that he’d make on the barbeque that he’d call “sweet meat” that was just incredible. And my mom’s from Spain, she’s from the Albacete side of Valencia and there’s a lot dishes she made when I was growing up that I realized I wanted to know how to make later. So I had her teach me.
You sound like me — I’m a really emotional cook. I show my affection for people by cooking. Are you the same?
Yes, absolutely. I love that part of it. And it’s hard when you have little kids because they don’t appreciate anything! You make a wonderful meal and bring it to the table and your five year old says “Wah! I thought we were having macaroni!” But I got over that a long time ago — you have to have a thick skin when you’re cooking for little kids.
It sounds like it’s a pretty creative process for you too. Do you see the correlation between making food and making music?
For sure. There’s a creative way that you send an email, or a creative way that you go grocery shopping, or the creative way your brain works when you’re coming up with a lyric for a song. I always find that I when push myself out of my comfort zone some cool things can from it. And with cooking, that’s a tangible thing because you’re actually going to be serving it to people. With cooking there’s slightly higher stakes than when you’re writing, because when you’re writing you can try something crazy and if it doesn’t quite work you scrap it and move on or modify it.
So, how much do you miss being in your kitchen when you’re out on the road?
I miss it a lot. Any time that we have a suite with a kitchen I’ll try to cook. But it’s tough because you get so used to your own kitchen and what are you going to do, go buy a big rack of spices? I’ve toyed with the idea of bringing a barbeque and stopping at the supermarket along the way. But 90% of the time you have to just go go go so much that you don’t have time. Even today is a day off, but it’s a 10 hour drive so it’s not really a day off. It’s really tough to find time to do that. I’d love to be able to travel in a camper so we can cook on the road. There are a lot of great restaurants too, but it can be nerve-wracking to pick the right one. When I get home the first thing I do is fire up a giant meal for my family. I think we’re doing Thanksgiving at my house this year and I’m really hoping to spearhead that meal once we finish our tour.
What are you going to make for Thanksgiving?
Well, there’s going to be turkey. And probably garlic mashed potatoes, we always have turnip, either cubed or mashed, a wonderful simple stuffing with bread, apples, onion, celery. Nothing special done with the bird, just a nice big fresh bird. Cranberry sauce is a staple, we always have sweet gherkin pickles on the table, sweet pickled onions. I’ll probably do some rolls — I started baking bread about a year and a half ago. I’ll do some challah rolls for this occasion. Brussels sprouts are always a staple as well, and the gravy. Then I’ll probably do a cheesecake for dessert.
What is your favourite kind of pie?
Can I pick a couple? I’m going to go with pumpkin pie straight up with my number one. I’ll go with a delicate cheesecake with a graham crust with pecan tied for second place and banana cream pie in third.
Can you share a recipe with us?
I make these pretty tasty lamb sliders. Basically just cut a baguette into portions and get the freshest ground lamb you can get and mix it up with some onions and some olive oil and bread crumbs and if you have some maple syrup barbeque sauce. Mix that all up. And then you can make an aioli, which is something my mother taught me, it’s a Spanish thing. It involves a mortar and pestle — basically you toss in three medium garlic cloves and a solid pinch of salt and puree that and get it to the point where you can’t see any more pieces. Then you take an egg yolk and get it in there and as soon as you see it start to blend you get the olive oil in there. Put it in one of those drizzler bottles and fill it up pretty much right up and then slowly stream it in and begin to churn it together. You have to watch it as you churn and keep going until it gets thicker. There’s nothing tastier with lamb. Make it and keep it in the fridge.
Once that’s done, cut the baguette up, and spread some aioli on it. I also like to make some caramelized onions, I think most people know how to do that. Then you put the little burgers on the grill until they’re good to go, put them on a plate and tent them with tin foil and fire on the baguette bread and barbeque that as well so that they crisp up nice. Put everything on a big platter and serve it to the people you love for a really tasty treat.
One thing: it’s very very important that the eggs are at room temperature to make the aioli.
I made the sliders (pictured above) and I must say, despite my life-long aversion to mayo, the aioli was delicious and I was mighty proud of myself for making it by hand (after crushing the garlic with the mortar and pestle I switched to a whisk). While I know the garlic aioli is the Spanish classic, I now have a better understanding why chefs have gone so crazy with flavoured aiolis over the years — it’s fun to make and the flavour combos are endless. I’m expecting a lot of aioli in my future. And also a lot of Zeus. Catch them on the road, or listen to some cuts from their new album, like this one: