Monday, October 10, 2016

Lessons from Cooking with Salt Blocks

I’ve spent the last few months doing some recipe testing with various salt blocks in order to demonstrate how to cook with them for a business person who stocks them in her store.

I’ve served several dishes made on salt blocks, from grilled fish to ice cream, and served the results to several guests in my home. My reviews are mixed. First, the positives:

There’s no better way to grill trout on the BBQ

When you get a big salt block good and hot on a gas grill, you have the perfect surface to sear and season your fish at the same time. The trout ends up with crispy, salty skin, which my kids go nuts for.

I’ve also seared scallops on the salt block, and that was also a success.

You can use them like a cookie stone or pizza pan

I’ve baked a peerless rustic apple tart on a salt block. It came out of the oven looking dramatic, and also tasted delicious. There is a recipe for walnut scones cooked on a salt block in Mark Bitterman’s Salt Block Cooking, which I would also love to try.

They are a dramatic way to serve food

A pink, translucent Himalayan salt block is a stunning surface on which to serve high quality ingredients. My absolute favourite was sushi-grade ahi tuna. The rich reddish hue of the tuna, laid out on the ethereal rose glow of the salt block was almost too pretty to eat. Almost.

Now, the qualified commentary:

You can make ice cream on them, but…

I have made a lot of ice cream on a frozen salt block as part of my recipe testing. The sweet and salty ice cream tended to be a bit too salty and was too much for people too attached to the idea of ice cream as a sweet treat. I secretly sneak a spoonful or two from the container I keep in my freezer once in a while, because I love the sweet, salty, creamy indulgence and find it sooths multiple cravings in one bite.

I also made a savoury ice cream of Parmesan and cream that received many positive reviews. But I wonder, would a less committed home cook find it worthwhile to commit to the time and mess of using a frozen salt block to make ice cream? Now that my research is complete, I for one probably won’t do it again for a long time.

The weight can be prohibitive

As I followed the recipe instructions to create a double batch of trout gravlax, pressed between two salt blocks, I realized I had a 50 lb. block of fish and salt that now needed to take up a two cubic feet in my fridge. This didn’t seem to make as much sense as the traditional method of putting a salt and sugar blend on the fish, tightly wrapping it in plastic and placing it under some kind of weight.

The weighted salt block method is kind of like the pressure cooker of salt preservation. It happens faster under pressure, and salt serves as both seasoning and the weight, but with some trade offs (like the risk of breaking your refrigerator shelves).

There is no hurrying a heating salt block

There is no such thing as using a salt block on a whim. They take about 50 minutes to heat up. And I found out the hard way what happens if you try to speed up that process at all.

In the midst of tempering a salt block according to instructions (or so I thought), I had a hot salt block explode on my range. I think the heat was too intense on my gas range to allow it to heat as slowly as it needed to. I had better luck on my gas grill. Electric ovens are supposed to work well as well. The instructions recommended against my gas oven, however, because gas ovens are more humid and can cause more reactions on the salt block’s surface.

The good news is that even a broken salt block can be used. I gathered up the broken pieces and put them into my salt grinder.


I absolutely love to experiment with new kinds of cooking equipment, and salt is such a versatile and fundamental ingredient in my kitchen. I’m grateful to have these salt block tools and to have had an opportunity to explore ways to use them and share that information with others. While they don’t replace all of the traditional cooking methods, I am certainly glad to have them as part of my cooking arsenal.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

A Weeknight Moroccan-fusion Menu for the Whole Family

This morning I didn't know what we were having for supper. I had a vague notion that something involving ground lamb would be about right, but that's as far as I had got. This is what happens when our regularly scheduled life gets hijacked by circumstances outside our control—I forego the weekly meal plan, and then it's Thursday morning and I don't know what to cook.

It was a long weekend here in Saskatchewan. We spent the weekend at my parents' place, house-sitting for them while they're in Mexico. It was a very nice Valentine's Day: steaks, baked potatoes and wedge salads and some quiet family time (much needed after several busy weeks) in a secluded log cabin.

And then the moment of calm was over. On Monday we drove back into the city, attended a beautiful brunch with friends in their new home, I took a two-hour work call, and then caught a plane to Edmonton so that I could drive to Slave Lake, AB for a work meeting the next day. A six hour round trip was followed by another plane ride to Regina, where I attended more meetings on Wednesday.

Hence the lack of a meal plan.

My husband did a great job of holding down the fort while I was away, and had slow cooker chicken in cream sauce waiting for us when we arrived home on Wednesday. I threw together some simple drop biscuits while he made a salad, and we had a lovely meal together.

Which brings me back to tonight. Lamb. What to do?

I did a search and landed on a cool concept on epicurious.com where you cook lamb burgers on the grill, right inside the pita. It looked easy and fun, and since my kids love quesadillas and burgers of all kinds, it looked like it might even be a hit with them.

I stopped at the store to pick up pita, and on a whim, also grabbed some eggplants. Why not Baba Ghanoush to go with the lamb burgers? I remembered that we had lots of carrots and cauliflower at home (thanks to my parents off-loading all their fresh produce before leaving for Mexico), so I decided to turn those into side dishes. And we were off.

The meal was a qualified success. The kids loved parts of it; the adults loved all of it. The kids were super excited by the burgers in the crunchy pitas. As my husband came in the door, he was greeted by D: "Dad! We're having these taco kinda lamb burger things and...what's it called? Baba ghanoush, which is like hummus except made with eggplants!" He gobbled up the baba ghanoush (first time either of my kids embraced eggplant), and politely explained that he didn't care for the carrot and date salad (much preferred to the hacking and gagging response we often get from his brother). He ate the roasted cauliflower with saffron, however. G did better with the burgers, avoided the eggplant and carrot salad, and picked the cauliflower out of the sauce studded with raisins and olives.

The adults loved the whole meal. And I will definitely be using the 'grill meat in pita' approach again. Here are the links so you can make it too, if you like!

Spiced Lamb Burger
Saffron Cauliflower  (don't be put off by the fancy name—this dish is super simple and forgiving. You could easily replace the saffron and water with vegetable broth. It won't be as pretty, but it will be more practical for most pantries.)
Date and Carrot Salad
Baba Ghanoush (dip extra pita in it before supper is ready, or serve it on your burgers. My husband piled his burger up with baba ghanoush and the carrot salad and declared it fabulous.)

Enjoy!

Thursday, February 11, 2016

When There's One Kid Who's Gluten-Free

How many of you have been where I am tonight? The Valentine's Day party is happening at school tomorrow. I have conditioned my children to expect that 'we' (meaning me) do heart cookies as Valentines. And one of D's friends is gluten-free.

D says, "Just make one of those coconut cookies. A haystack." Like it's easy to make just one cookie.

I realized as I was pulling the heart cookies out of the oven this morning that this one child had still not been accounted for. I thought about it three times today, and hadn't come up with the time to address the issue. I got home from bootcamp at 9:30pm and realized that I still hadn't come up with a solution.

I confess, I looked for an easy way out. I went to the store, hoping to find a gluten-free cookie that would work for this little boy.

One gluten-free cookie
How many times do people with food
 allergies just have to sit out? I couldn't
 do that to D's friend on Valentine's Day.
Sometimes the Universe notes my attempt at a short cut, and says, "Tsk tsk. You can do better." There was not a single gluten-free cookie for purchase at my nearest grocery store, which was closing as I searched.

I considered just sending him a bag full of cinnamon hearts, but I knew that would appear less next to everyone else's homemade cookies (as would the purchased cookie, if I'm truthful). So I bucked up and decided to make a tiny batch of coconut macaroons.

Now that I've done it, I know I can do it again. It took mere minutes, and while I'm waiting up while they bake, it's so worth it to have the option of a tiny batch of gluten-free alternatives for the one person who can't eat the regular cookies.

So here it is. A recipe that makes only four cookies. But sometimes, when you just need that one cookie, that's all you need.



One-egg Coconut Macaroons (adapted from Molly Wizenberg's A Homemade Life)

1 egg white
2/3 cup sweetened flaked coconut
2 1/2 T. sugar
1/8 t. vanilla extract

Place egg white, coconut and sugar in a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. Heat and stir until the mixture begins to dry out and get stickier. You can tell when you're getting close because the mixture starts to look creamy and you can see individual coconut pieces. Once it's sticky, but still moist, remove from heat and stir in the vanilla.

Spread out the mixture on a pie plate and place in the freezer to cool for about five minutes. Shape cooled mixture into four equal mounds. Top with a cinnamon heart, if you like, and bake at 300F until golden, about 20 minutes.

Makes 4.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Oops, I made cassoulet!

Last Sunday I decided it was time to roast the pork hocks that my dad gave me. He cures them himself, and includes not only the hocks, but also the feet. There's not a lot of meat on these things, but I am content to chew on the slow cooked tendons, and my kids are delighted to have unlimited access to 'skin'.

I suspected I'd have leftovers, and thought about making some sort of a dish with beans and whatever pig parts I had to work with. It turned out to be two feet and virtually no meat, but I decided it would still add some flavour.

I began thinking that I could make a riff on some sort of Cajun dish, like Red Beans and Rice de Guise. I had the recipe in front of me and started assembling similar but not exact ingredients. I didn't have sausage, but I had a wedge of my dad's smoked bacon, basically a hunk of pork belly, salted and smoked. I didn't have fresh herbs like tarragon, but I had salted herbs. I didn't have porcini mushrooms, but I did have dried mixed mushrooms. I found some homemade beef stock in the freezer as well.

For vegetables, I had half a fennel bulb, a tired orange sweet pepper, onions and celery. I snipped some rosemary off one of the plant that lives under a grow light all winter, and grabbed a fresh bay leaf from its neighbour. The beans I had on hand were Romano, sort of in between red and white beans. My initial plan was to chop the bacon, fry it, throw the vegetables into the fat, and then build the bean dish from there.

Looking at my collection of ingredients, I had a flash of inspiration. I realized that I had all the makings for a cassoulet, especially if I added a small container of duck meat that was in the freezer since the last time I cooked a duck, waiting for an opportunity just like this.

Cassoulet, in the recipes I've read, tends to take days to prepare, starting with confit duck legs and linking your own sausage. When I saw my own collection of ingredients, however, I began to wonder if this isn't where the dish began: in a French farmhouse kitchen on a day when the femme had various scraps of cooked and raw meat, not enough for a meal on their own, but combined and mixed with some dried beans, enough for a satisfying dinner.

I pulled out my birthday gift from my husband, the last porcelain enamelled cast iron pan he'll ever buy me, or so he promises. The drawers where I keep my pots can't handle any more weight! The pot is a shallow Dutch oven, perfect for braising, and while my first thought was that I didn't really need it, since I have a good number of cast iron frying pans and a Dutch oven already, I have put it to use several times since he gave it to me.

Instead of cutting up the bacon, I threw it in and simmered it as a pork belly. Between it, the duck and the pigs feet, I'd have a rich sauce for the beans. I sautéed the vegetables, and then added the meats, chopped mushrooms and their soaking broth, and the beef stock. I topped it up with water, and set it to simmer.

It bubbled all afternoon. Since I needed to run out to a meeting at one point, I experimented with putting it in the oven. I realized the beans weren't going to cook that way, since I hadn't even stacked them before throwing them in the broth. I put it back on the stove and left it on low. The results, a few hours later, were a sticky, savoury stew, studded with the occasional bone from the pig feet and duck pieces. I instructed my husband to pick up some French bread on the way home.

To add a bit of green to the meal, I sautéed some kale in garlic, and topped my stew with it. When I ladled it into bowls for my family, I had no expectations that my kids would enjoy it. They're lukewarm on stews most of the time.

Little did I know that the way to their hearts was through their French roots. D started scooping his stew onto his bread, like the ultimate beans on toast. G took a bite and said, "I want more of this." I reminded him that his bowl still had quite a bit of stew in it. He followed his brother's lead, and topped his bread with the mixture as well. He ate it all, and asked for a second helping.

My husband bubbled over with gratitude. "You used the pot I gave you to make cassoulet?? On a weekday?? Where did you even get this duck?!?" I sat across the table, with smug satisfaction, and watched him savour every bite.

The entire experience was completely gratifying. I loved having such beautiful ingredients to work with. I loved having enough experience to look at what I had to work with and see what it could become. I loved that my family enjoyed their dinner so much.

I know that not all of my readers will have access to pigs feet or smoked pork belly, or left over roast duck, and even fewer would have access to them all on the same day. This post isn't about sharing a recipe that you can recreate. It's more about the long term benefits of making scratch cooking and good quality ingredients a priority, because with time and experience, you too will be able to transform a few scraps of meat and leftovers and some tired vegetable into something both comforting and transcendent. Look into your fridge with an attitude of inquiry—you'll be amazed at what you can create.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

First (of many) Meal Plan for 2016

Instead of offering excuses or blathering about resolutions, I am simply going to say I'm back and intend to make more time for blog posts. A few things have shifted in my life so that I just might be able to stick with this on a regular basis. Yay!

For today, I will get back to the basics—providing my meal plan and recipes for the first week of January, and also sharing a bit of my current challenges around feeding my children.

As many parents would agree, the challenges seem to constantly shift, so once you think you've solved one problem another one seems to arise. Once we adjusted to D deciding he hates mushrooms, we suddenly also have to take into consideration that G has turned against pancakes (this is a tough one, since D doesn't consider a weekend to be complete without a large serving of pancakes).

At 5 and 7, my boys are considered by most to be good eaters. D in particular is growing fast enough that he can't afford to be fussy. Several moms have commented that when my boys are over, they are delighted by how enthusiastic they are about food. They eat most vegetables, they like all kinds of meat and starches, including lentils and whole grains. But if I try to mix things up in some kind of casserole, or too much spice of any kind, it is branded "too spicy" by five year old G, and rejected outright.

The strange thing is that G loves to eat when he likes what is put in front of him, and I've seen him literally break down in tears when we've had too many meals in a row where he has to try things he doesn't like or pick through things that contain ingredients he doesn't like. I don't want that to be his food experience either. It's tough on everyone.

If I were willing to serve what I have heard some chefs call "prison food"—a meat, starch and steamed vegetable, served untouching on the plate, my kids would for the most part be happy. It's me and my insistence on variety that get me into trouble. But I also know that sometimes they'll reject something one day and enjoy it the next, so I don't want to give in to their requests for simplicity just yet. It's all so confusing.

I'm trying to do more planning in order to make better use of what is in our pantry and freezer. I'm also trying to provide a variety of food experiences that both serve my kids' preferences for plain and simple and offer some new flavours and healthful options. I'm hoping it will do us all a service in the long run.

Starting with our meal tonight, I've set up a plan for six nights, offering a mix of vegetarian, meat, and options for using leftovers. Here goes!

Sunday
Emeril's Asian-Style Braised Short Ribs
Steamed brown and wild rice
Braised Bok Choy

This meal has been a hit in the past, so I was pretty confident going in. I don't get fancy with the sauce, just braise the ribs and then put them not the table. The kids love the ribs and the rice. The bok choy, while loved by my husband and me, and scarfed down by D, was rejected by G. Oh well. He ate the kale salad the night before, and both a romaine salad and roasted broccolette the night before, so I'm just going to have to accept my losses along with the wins.

Monday
Fried rice with leftover roast pork, peas, corn and eggs
Asian inspired salad (Probably this salad dressing, Romaine lettuce and fresh mandarin oranges and cashews)

I don't really have a recipe for fried rice. I will just dig around in my fridge, pull out what I can find for veggies, chop it small and stir-fry it with the roast pork and leftover rice. Then I'll mix in an egg. I have already been informed by D (and G will certainly follow) that this will not be a popular meal. Maybe I'll bend a little and make up plates of all the stuff in the fried rice, but not mixed together, for the kids.

Tuesday

Vegetable Upside Down Cake (from Mollie Katzen's Enchanted Broccoli Forest (I have the old edition, but there's a new one))
Coleslaw

I've never done this before, but it is a novel idea, and it fits my goal to pack in more vegetables in novel ways. I have lots of sweet peppers in my fridge after Christmas and New Years' parties. G declared sometime last year that he hates them, but he can usually be persuaded to pick them out.

Wednesday

Monster Meatballs in Tomato Sauce (from Canadian Living's new seasonal slow cooker magazine, Easy Does It)
Caesar Salad

At worst, G will eat plain spaghetti with cheese. Strangely, his favourite cheese of all time is fresh Parmeggiano, which he will eat by the handful. I'll maybe save him some lettuce without the 'spicy' Caesar dressing so he gets some vegetables.

Thursday

Quinoa egg muffins by slenderkitchen.com
Roasted acorn squash
Salad (of some kind)

Squash is slowly becoming accepted in our household...very slowly. I'm not sure how this will be met in our house, but since I can't let the poor thing go to waste, I'm going to cook it. I'll try to work leftovers into my lunches.

As for the egg muffins, I will have a sense of what else needs using up by Thursday, and I can hopefully make a few without red peppers, so that G will enjoy them too.

Friday (Date night!)

I will only be cooking for the kids on Friday, since my hubby and I are planning to head out for a much needed adult night. We've been either traveling for work or just too busy to schedule a night out together for well over a month. We're looking forward to dinner and a movie.

My food fallback for date nights is usually smokies and perogies, some fresh veggies and a bowl of frozen peas. Weird, I know, but my kids plough through frozen peas like you wouldn't believe. Try it sometime! I often offer them as an after school snack.

Looking back on this meal plan, it may be too pushy for poor fussy G. But we have leftover roast pork and short ribs that we can make a meal of somehow if needed. And tomorrow, we're back to school lunches so I made a big batch of Morning Glory muffins, switching out the pecans for pepitas, to abide by the school's nut-free policy.

I thought I could find the morning glory muffin recipe link that I have been using for years, but I've been thwarted by the ephemeral nature of the World Wide Web. The original link is gone! But lucky for everyone, I have two hand-written copies of it in my recipe binder, so I will share here:

Morning Glory Muffins

Mix together in a large bowl:

4 c. flour (I used half white and half whole wheat)
4 c. oatmeal
2 1/2 c. sugar
4 t. baking soda
2 t. baking powder
4 t. cinnamon
1 t. salt
1 c. sunflower seeds
1 c. sesame seeds
1 c. raisins
1 c. pecans (or pepitas)
1 c. coconut

In a separate large bowl, mix the wet ingredients:

6 eggs
1 c. buttermilk (or milk kefir)
1 c. vegetable oil
2 t. vanilla
2 c. grated carrot
2 c. grated zucchini
2 green apples, peeled and grated

Add wet ingredients to dry and mix well. Spoon into muffin cups and bake at 350F for 20 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. I make these as mini muffins too. Then you only need to bake them for 10 minutes. This makes 4 dozen large muffins. You'll be enjoying them out of the freezer for a few weeks!

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Quick Pickles

I was on CTV Morning news this morning, pinch hitting for chefs who are cooking for the Saskatchewan Environmental Society's Sustainable Gourmet Fundraiser.

I needed to do something that we could pull off in 3 minutes, and while there are several complex items on the Sustainable Gourmet menu, like sous vide bison and balsamic pearls, I decided I could do a carrot pickle, the garnish for Chef Darby Kells' trout fritters, without much trouble.

Here's the recipe for anyone who missed my instructions. And here is the original Epicurious recipe that I adapted it from.

Quick Carrot Pickle

Makes enough brine for a pint of carrot pickle.

1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup water
2 T. sugar
1 T. pickling salt or sea salt
1/2 T. each peppercorns and mustard seed (I used a peppercorn mix, and a combination of yellow and brown mustard seeds)
1/2 lb. fresh garden carrots, sliced into sticks that will fit in your jar

Put all ingredients except the carrots in a pot an bring to a boil. In the meantime, pack the carrots into a clean pint jar, or two half-pint jars. Once the mixture is boiling and all the salt and sugar has dissolved, pour the hot brine over the carrots, cover, let cool and place in the refrigerator. Chill for two hours or overnight.

These quick pickles will last 3-4 weeks in your fridge, and then you can make fresh ones when they're all gone. It's easy to have great vegetable pickles with minimal fuss or mess.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

6 (and more) Ways to Eat Dandelions

I have been eating dandelions more and more lately. I don't always forage for them myself. Dandelion greens are actually available quite often in the organic produce section of grocery stores.

I also signed up for a Community Supported Foraging program run by Wild Infusions in Love, Saskatchewan. They deliver one box a month, sent by bus, full of wild-foraged foods and medicines, like Labrador tea, wild rose petals, nettles, wild mushrooms, and of course, dandelion greens.

Dandelions, while the bane of lawn enthusiasts, are drastically undervalued as a food and medicinal plant. They exist in North America because European immigrants brought the seeds with them. They considered dandelions so useful they couldn't imagine life without them. And now, it's hard for us to imagine life without them, too. But only because they are such a widespread weed.

The entire dandelion plant is edible. If you ever dared to taste one of the flowers, you'd be amazed how sweet they are. The leaves can be substituted for any dark, leafy green. Just be aware that they are sometimes quite bitter. If you are not accustomed to bitter flavours, it may be an acquired taste. But that bitter flavour is one of the tell-tale signs that dandelions are really, really good for you.

My sister studies herbology, and she is adamant that everyone should include more dandelion in their diet. They are considered a liver and kidney tonic, and help cleanse the body and improve digestion. Occasionally I try to wean myself off coffee, and when I do, I often use Dandy Blend, a commercially available coffee substitute, containing dandelion root, that I find surprisingly enjoyable in spite the lack of caffeine.

So if you were wondering what you might do with those pesky plants studding your lawn, here are a few ideas, curated from the internet, to get you started.

1. A simple salad (thanks, Martha Stewart!)
2. Dandelion greens with a warm hazelnut vinaigrette (I haven't tried this, but it's on my 'to make' list, so I thought I'd share)
3. Replace any dark leafy greens or wild greens in a recipe. I did that for this Hortopita, combining dandelion greens and chard mixed with feta cheese. My kids weren't keen on the bitterness, and my husband topped it with more cheese and said he liked it then. I liked it as is.
4. Make liqueur! Jenieats offers a guideline for cordial. I have tasted dandelion mead, made from dandelion honey, which was delicious. I love making liqueurs, because they tend to really capture the flavour of whatever fruit or herb you use. I'm going to have to try this.
5. Make dandelion cookies. Yes, you heard that right. My sister swears by them.
6. Make dandelion fritters. Sweet or savoury!

Eat The Weeds offers a nice list of recipes, from dandelion bread to dandelion wine.

The Kitchn offers up another 10 dandelion recipes that all sound delicious. Try them!

I get the sense that you can use them anywhere, in anything. If you need me, I'll be out picking dandelions.

Note: be sure you are foraging from a pesticide-free zone!