Wednesday, February 18, 2015

My Own 'Date Night In'

Thank you for your patience, dear readers. I have been away far too long, working under an insane deadline for a web content project. I had so much more time for blogging when I wasn't working full time!

But I would like to share my own recent experience with a Date Night In.

I was inspired by a speaker at last year's Food Bloggers of Canada conference. Ashley Rodriguez, of Not Without Salt fame, was about to release her second book, titled Date Night In. The idea sounded intriguing. Something I hadn't even considered before.

When my kids were smaller, and I was more housebound overall, the concept of a date night in sounded horrible. I just wanted to get the hell out. Besides that, I was struggling to continue as a local dining columnist, which meant any and every rare date opportunity had to involve dining out at my next review location.

Now that my kids aren't waking up every two hours to nurse, and we can get through a movie from 8:30 to 11PM without someone waking up crying, and now that the intensity of my work life has increased exponentially (it's good, I'm not complaining), I find the prospect of a quiet night at home, eating dinner together after the kids go to sleep, much more appealing.

The event was not without challenges. First, was explaining to my kids why we weren't going to eat dinner with them. Since we almost always eat together, this was not going to go unnoticed. Then came G's fretful questions:
"If you're going on a date, who will look after us?" We're not going anywhere, sweetie, we'll be right here the whole time.
"How come I never get to have a date?"
How do I even answer that? What can I say kid, you live a life of abject deprivation.

My own challenge with the concept of a date night in after kids are in bed is that we'll be eating late. The idea of a heavy meal late in the evening didn't really appeal to me. My husband wasn't much help. When I asked him what he'd like to eat on our 'date', he said, "well, steak sounds good..." Good, yes. Not so much on the light side though.

My own approach, whenever I get to cook a meal that my kids aren't going to eat, is to fit in the things that I like that they don't: spice! mushrooms!

I started building a meal plan around steak, using what we had in the house as much as possible, and also fitting in some of my cravings, while not going overboard with dishes that were too heavy so late at night.

Here's what I came up with:
T-bone steaks on the grill, seasoned with smoked salt and smoked peppercorns and topped with blue cheese
Roasted butternut squash with spicy onions (spicy, see?)
Braised hardy greens with mixed mushrooms (mushrooms!), from Nava Atlas' Wild About Greens
...and red wine of course...Altos de Luzon to be exact.

The Universe stepped in to up the romance quotient. The steaks were seasoned, the squash was roasting, and I was just prepping the ingredients for the braise, when I suggested to my husband that he light a fire in the fireplace. Then the power went out.

"I guess I'd better light the fire sooner than later, eh?" he said. First he got some candles so I could continue preparing dinner.

I did a quick inventory of what needed an alternate fuel to electricity. My range is gas, but the oven is a combination of gas and electric, which means it kicked out when the power went out. I decided to switch the pan of roasting squash to the outdoor grill, hoping that we had enough propane for both the squash and the steaks.

We didn't have enough propane in the tank that was on the barbecue, but we had a backup, so my husband did some scrambling, swapping out propane tanks, hauling in wood, and lighting a fire.

Our meal was by far more romantic by candlelight. So much so, that when the power came back on midway through, we just turned out the lights and continued with the candlelight. I was relieved that we wouldn't have to worry about frozen pipes or piling the kids into our bed to keep warm without a furnace overnight. Modern convenience is much preferred, even if it means candlelight is optional.

Romantic candle-lit dinner for two; who wouldn't love a date night in?
Our meal was wonderful. I was pleased with how all the flavours blended. We hit all the elements: sweet squash, spicy onions, creamy goat cheese, pungent blue cheese, earthy greens and mushrooms... I marvelled at how everything that goes well with steak (robust greens, garlic, mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, red wine) can be found in a vegan side dish (oh, the irony). We finished our meal warm, comfortably full, with the flavours still swirling on our tastebuds and ready to skip dessert in favour of more romance.

We're sold on date nights in. I'll keep you posted on the next one!

Monday, October 27, 2014

Slow Food Saskatoon Boreal Feast Event

I didn't post about this earlier because I was in the midst of planning and executing the event. dee Hobsbawn-Smith and I just co-hosted a six course, small plates dinner, matched with wine, to celebrate Michele Genest's new book The Boreal Feast. Michele honoured us with her presence, and we cooked recipes from her book for the event.

I haven't done any catering or hosting of large events for a couple of years. But I knew I wanted this event to happen, and I jumped at the chance to offer both my help and my house as a venue.

My house isn't very big, but we'd hosted up to 45 people before, so I figured 30, for a 'stand-up' dinner, would be manageable.

It wasn't until the Monday before the event, after it had sold out, that I wondered at my own sanity. Why did I think it was a good idea to sell tickets to an event at my house, for 30 people, potentially strangers? It was too late to do anything but wonder and make sure I did my best to make it a success.

And of course, I remembered, it IS Saskatoon after all. In any group of 30 people, I'm bound to know at least a couple of them.

So the menu was this:

Welcome course
Modernist Celery & Olives, Grilled Halloumi, Hakan Sarkaker's Thin Bread, Smoked Saskatchewan Whitefish Spread, Juniper Aioli
Served with dee's Market Sangria

First Plate
Toasted Sunflower Seed Soup, Finnish Pulla Bread
Served with Torreon de Paredes Reserve Chardonnay

Second Plate
Buckwheat Blini, Walnut-Mushroom Filling
Served with Melipal Malbec Rose

Palate Cleanser
Endive, Daikon & Kohlrabi Salad with Walnuts and Cranberries, Cranberry Vinaigrette

Next Plate
Goat sausage with juniper and blueberries, Turnip Gratin
Served with Medeiros Red wine

Sweet Plate
Five cookies (spruce jelly thumbprint cookies, Kolakakor, Smoked labrador tea shortbreads, wild cranberry biscotti, sugar cookies with candied lemon)
One meringue (rosewater and rose petal!)
Coffee, tea

The wine was recommended by Doug Reichel of Fine Wines Saskatchewan, and matched beautifully with the food. dee's son Dailyn, a pastry chef at NOtaBLE in Calgary, fell in love with the Medeiros, so I sent him home with a bottle.

Speaking of Dailyn, thank all the gods that he was there. Reflecting back on the night, I couldn't imagine having pulled it off without him. He was dressing salads, dishing soup, grilling halloumi and goat sausage and washing plates, while dee was plating dishes, orchestrating the courses and doing the last bits of seasoning, and I was playing hostess and telling people where to put their coats, pouring wine, and setting out the cookies and coffee. Had we not had three sets of hands, we either would have just made it work, or eventually someone would have taken pity on us and offered to wash a round of plates. As it was, everyone got to enjoy their evening, and Dailynn had fun grilling and cutting vegetables, since most days he is baking bread.

I'm delighted to now have a copy of The Boreal Feast and I have a couple of favourite recipes from the evening, and others I can't wait to try. I was enamoured with the magical elements of both Harkan Sarkakar's thin bread (it's just seeds, mixed with cornstarch and boiling water, and then you bake it in a low oven for a long time. It makes a sturdy, seedy cracker that I will be making again) and the cream of sunflower seed soup (it starts out as seeds floating in broth, along with onions and roasted garlic, but then you purée it and it turns into this velvety, buttery, silky and comforting cream soup. Amazing!).

I'm also fascinated by the prospects of harvesting spruce tips next spring, and using them as a fresh herb, or drying them for later use. I can just walk out into my front yard and pick them off our massive spruce tree, which I now see as having renewed purpose.

My night was made when a woman who was born in Finland tasted the Pulla bread that originates in Finland. She proclaimed that dee and Dailyn had done it perfectly, and that it brought a tear to her eye, remembering her mother's Pulla. At that moment, I decided it had all been worth it.

And what was the 'it' that had all been worth it? It wasn't too serious. I'd done worse before, like hosted something like that on my own. In that case I wouldn't have been quite as ambitious with the number of courses and what was in them. I'd be doing a lot more make-ahead/serve yourself kind of stuff, rather than plating every course. dee, you amaze me!

Most of my work had to be done on the Saturday, and it involved shopping, baking the thin bread, cranberry biscotti, turnip gratin and sunflower soup (vegetarian and with chicken broth). That didn't seem like much until I realized that it was 2pm and I hadn't finished my shopping, and that the thin bread (for which I was making four batches) required an hour and 20 minutes in the oven.

I quickly revised my plans for a date night with my husband (lucky thing we had gone out on a whim the night before) and advised him that we would be ordering in while I waited for stuff to come out of the oven.

The cooking took place between 4 and 11:30pm on Saturday, which left me time to play league volleyball from 9-noon on Sunday, and then get right back into prep work. Sunday was a long day, but an overall success once people got over their initial discomfort with the close quarters, and began visiting with the other guests.

I did know about a third of the people there, and now I know the rest of them! We got great feedback, Michele got to sell a pile of her books, and we wrapped up the night with Dailyn our saviour doing the king's share of the cleanup (if the king were to do cleanup, that is) and then having a glass of wine or liqueur (Michele's cookbook has several liqueur recipes as well, and I lined up my own collection of fruit liqueurs for her to try) and putting our feet up for a few minutes. We crawled into bed around midnight, and my mind stopped spinning around 1:30.

While it was a gratifying experience all around, I have to say that until my kids are older, I won't be able to do this very often. My parents graciously looked after my kids for the weekend, even though G had a nasty cold and barfed in their car on the way back to the farm. While I enjoyed the unbroken rest that came with not having the boys around, I missed them.

While I couldn't have kept the house clean, accomplished my to-do list and kept my sanity with the kids around, D was not convinced that he should be missing a party where food was happening. So I think next time (because yes, there WILL be a next time. I am compelled to do these kinds of events), maybe we'll find a different venue, so that my family has somewhere to be while I help with the cooking.

In the meantime, we're enjoying our mini-family reunion as well as the leftovers. I have cookies and buckwheat blini galore in the freezer, and some halved lemons are now being preserved for some Moroccan adventures to come. We had sunflower seed soup for lunch, and I spread some of the juniper aioli on some jackfish fillets and broiled them for our dinner, served alongside the turnip gratin (which the kids rejected outright—although D ate two servings of jackfish), and leftover salad fixings. I will be eating pulla bread until it is gone. It is just so good with a bit of butter on it!

But the cooking never stops. In the midst of final cleanups, I turned some slightly old goat milk (the kids drink it, but they were away for the weekend, and it was a little too 'goaty' by the time they returned) into ricotta, and I fried some leftover halloumi for G as a mid-afternoon snack. Tomorrow I will be turning some turkey stock and curly endive that I found at the Farmers' Market into Italian wedding soup, and I have volunteered to bring Halloween cookies for both boys' parties on Friday.

I decided that I should make some kind of decorating cookie in the hopes of using up some of the orange sugar I bought for the boys' birthday cupcakes. I have a pumpkin cookie cutter, so then decided that I should make cookies that contain actual pumpkin. Bless the inter web, someone thought of it before me. So I'll be making pumpkin gingerbread cookies, shaped like pumpkins, for Friday. That's how we roll.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Goat Soup

My classic Canadian Thanksgiving weekend got a little atypical towards the end. We ate turkey, took nice fall walks, fit in a couple of horseback rides, spent time with family...the usual. But then on Monday, after a lunch of turkey leftovers and one slice each of my mom's apple and pumpkin pies, I picked up a recently butchered goat from my cousins' house, and hauled it home to debone.

Not your typical Thanksgiving activity—deboning a goat.

Why was I deboning a goat, you ask?

Well, it's something of a long story, but I'll try to keep it short. I am on the Steering Committee for Slow Food International's Saskatoon convivium (check us out on Facebook). We work to raise awareness about good, clean and fair food, and often do so by coming together to enjoy good food.

So we put on events, and we are lucky enough to be hosting Michele Genest, author of The Boreal Feast for a reading, presentation and stand-up small plates dinner at my house, cooked by convivium leader (and wonderful mentor) dee Hobsbawn-Smith and myself. And one of the recipes we're making is Goat Sausage with Juniper and Blueberries.

So there we were, spending our Thanksgiving afternoon cutting the meat off a fresh goat carcass.

Have I mentioned my unusual fascination with cutting up meat? Many of my ancestors were butchers; I am always surprised by how happy I am while in the midst of slicing through raw meat and bone.

In the end, we had 15 lbs. of goat meet, which was half again as much as we needed for the dinner. We'll have extra sausage to give to the people who raised the goat, as well as for ourselves. We also have more than 15 lbs. of goat bones. There is much stock to be made.

I had no idea how goat stock or goat soup would taste, but I went for it anyway. I roasted some of the bones for about an hour at 400F and then added them to sautéed carrots, onions, celery, a whole head of garlic, fresh rosemary and thyme, peppercorns, parsley, covered the whole thing with water and simmered the stock overnight.

I had in mind a chickpea and goat soup I tasted on a day tour to Tangiers many years ago, so I cooked some chickpeas, cut the goat meat off the bones, and opted for Moroccan flavours for the soup.

I've decided to give away the remaining goat bones to other people who would benefit from good bone broth, because I now have 7L of goat broth in my freezer, after I made a healthy batch of soup.

If you ever find yourself with a pile of goat bones, or goat stock, try this soup. It was surprisingly delicious. My husband gave it two thumbs up; D ate a whole bowl of it; but, G found it wanting. You can't please everyone all the time. I think he was just thinking ahead to the leftover pumpkin pie for dessert.

Goat soup with oven roasted tomatoes and Moroccan flavours

1 T. olive oil
1 onion, chopped
2 large carrots, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 garlic clove, chopped
1/2 t. cinnamon
1 t. cumin
1 t. coriander
1/2 t. turmeric
2 c. chopped, cooked goat meat (from making the stock)
2 c. cooked or canned chickpeas
1 c. roasted tomatoes or canned tomatoes
4-6 c. goat stock
1 red pepper, chopped
1 c. chopped spinach
Salt and pepper to taste

Heat olive oil in a soup pot. Sauté onion, carrots, celery and garlic for a couple of minutes. Stir in spices and sauté another minute, or until the spices are fragrant. Add the goat meat, chickpeas, tomatoes and stock and bring to a simmer. Simmer for 10 to 15 minutes, to allow flavours to blend. Add red pepper and spinach and cook five minutes more. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Friday, October 3, 2014

My New Way to Preserve Produce: Make Soup!

For those of us who grew up on farms, watching our mothers and grandmothers put up the garden produce, we know what we're supposed to do. I helped my mom pick and process bushels of fresh peas, beans, and corn (blanched and frozen in little bags), cabbage (krauted, then processed in a boiling water bath), cucumbers (pickled in vinegar), beets (pickled or made into a borscht concentrate with a collection of other garden veggies and frozen), and tomatoes (canned in a variety of ways).

I've been spending the last few years reconciling my own approach to gardening and preserving food with the one I grew up with. For one, I don't have a 5,000 square foot garden. I also have had no luck with peas (one of the best yields in my mom's garden), and I have never had the space to grow many root veggies. Plus, my mom's (now smaller) garden still offers up enough beets and potatoes for us to enjoy.

I've also discovered the joys of lactic acid fermentation, so I am loathe to pickle anything in vinegar. Instead I've been experimenting with salt brining various veggie combinations, and I don't process anything in boiling water. This activity is limited somewhat by refrigerator space, as they have to be kept in cold storage.

I took on the canning of my mom's tomatoes last year because she and my dad were traveling during canning season. I found it labour intensive, hot and messy, and while I like the results, I prefer my own method of slow roasting tomatoes and throwing them in the freezer.

And then there are are the few vegetables that are too plentiful for me to eat fresh or find a way to ferment. This year, that includes zucchini, corn (not that I grew it, but I did get carried away at the market gardens), and chard.

With the cold weather coming, I picked all my chard at once, and then wondered what to do with it. My mom blanched and froze it, which I loved. My kids have yet to warm up to cooked leafy greens, and while I did blanch some last year, it is still in my freezer. This year, I decided to make soup. I found a couple of freezable recipes that can be used as is or added to, and which call for a ton of veggies. My kids love soup, and will eat things they normally avoid, like lentils and chard, when it is served in a broth.

Every one of those containers in the freezer is a quick and easy meal, and a (hopefully) effective way of getting my kids to eat their veggies.

My two favourites (there are tons more--I just Googled 'corn chowder for freezing' and 'chard soup for freezing' and these came up:
Sweet Corn Chowder, c/o Keeza's Freezer Meals
Lentil Swiss Chard Soup, c/o Flavia's Flavors

The lentil chard soup is perfect as is; the sweet corn chowder has all kinds of potential. It is vegan and packed with veggies when it comes out of the freezer, but when you add a bit of ham, cheese or cream, it is elevated to absolute heaven. I could imagine adding some seafood or bacon, along with cheese and cream, for an absolutely decadent soup. And it can change every time. Kind of like my mom's borscht recipe...

Monday, August 25, 2014

Swiss Buttercream Frosting: what you need to know

From the time I tasted my first French pastry (not yet in France, sadly, but at Notte's Bon Ton Pastry shop in Vancouver), I have been a buttercream snob. All those cupcake shops that claim to have buttercream icing, and then pile on that pancreatic crisis of icing sugar and shortening, drive me crazy.

So when I make cupcakes, I make REAL buttercream. But I sometimes only make cupcakes once a year, at my kids' birthday party, so in between I forget some of the finer points.

While I was grateful to Martha Stewart for her cupcake ideas, and for the Swiss Meringue Buttercream recipe that I use most often, after successive years of absolute panic while making this buttercream, I take issue with her recipe instructions.

I have friends who fear buttercream, because it seems hard. With the right equipment, namely a stand mixer with a lot of horsepower, it is practically fool-proof. But I manage to forget that from year to year.

On my first foray into Swiss Meringue Buttercream, I was nine months pregnant, it was D's second birthday, and I was determined to make these cute little lion cupcakes from Martha Stewart's Cupcakes. He's a Leo, you see. My sister was helping me prepare the cupcakes, and her job was to cut mini-marshmallows in half with scissors, to make the lions' muzzles. Absurdly, she had so much fun with it, she constantly asks if I want her to cut up marshmallows whenever she visits.

I had made the buttercream a couple of days earlier, so decided to freeze it, which Martha Stewart says is just fine. You just 'bring to room temperature and beat with paddle attachment on low speed until smooth again, about 5 minutes.' 

Here's the trick with Swiss Meringue Buttercream. It may take WAY longer than five minutes to become smooth again, and before it becomes smooth, it breaks down into a horrifically curdled mess, and if you don't remember the trick with Swiss Meringue Buttercream, you will become convinced that it is ruined and you have to start again. 

I sent my sister to the store to buy another pound of butter, wondering how I would ever pull off making another batch of frosting AND decorating the cupcakes before guests arrived. As she left, she said, "Just leave it running and walk away. I'll get your butter, but it's going to be okay!" And you know what? It was. It just starts to magically come together and what used to look like watery cottage cheese now looks like beautiful, silky, perfect frosting. But that experience took a year or two off my life.

And guess what? It happened again this year. Except this time, it was the first round of mixing the frosting that took forever to come together. It looked remarkably like cottage cheese, and it mixed for at least 20 minutes without changing. I actually texted my sister, who lives 1800 km away: "Swiss meringue buttercream stresses me out every time. Can you run to Extra Foods and get me another pound of butter?" She replied, "Just keep mixing! It will be fine. BREATHE! ;)" And then a few minutes later, "Do you need me to cut marshmallows?"

I did walk away, and it did come together. But seriously, Martha. Five minutes? I think it's important to let anyone who is trying Swiss Meringue Buttercream for the first time know that it can take 10 times that. Don't give up. I have never had to throw away a batch. It has always turned out perfect. Eventually. Thanks again, sis!

Birthday Theme: Balls!

For quite a while now, I have been planning a post on balls as a theme for Finger Food Fridays. Before I got to that, however, I was inspired to take it to another level. Balls as a theme for my boys' double birthday party (their birthdays are six days apart).

It is super fun to blurt, "Balls!" when someone asks what is for supper. Turns out it is also fun to blurt, "Balls!" when people ask me what I'm making for my kids' birthday party. Birthdays at my house are family affairs. No 'drop off your kids and I'll feed them hot dogs and cake and candy and send them home jacked on sugar' here. I try to keep the sugar levels low, and I try to make the food something the adults will want to stay for.

This does, however, tend to drive up the numbers of people at the party. This year I tried valiantly to keep it under 30, about 16 kids and 14 adults. Still over the top, I know, but also a reduction from the numbers of the last two years.

I try to make birthday party food that accepts the reality of kids at birthday parties. There are so many more exciting things to do at a party than eat, so unless you make the food small and portable, they likely will not eat anything until the cake comes out. 

Balls seemed like a good solution. I already knew it was a hit with my kids, and I have made meals of balls on many a Finger Food Friday. What kinds of balls? Well, meatballs, rice balls, cheese balls, falafel, quinoa pilaf rolled into balls, Brussels sprouts, cherry tomatoes, bocconcini…and the list goes on.

G with a cheek full of some kind of ball on a Finger Food Friday.

I was also dealing with a few allergies among my guests—wheat, eggs and dairy to be exact. I couldn't make everything allergy-friendly, but I did what I could.

So the birthday party menu went like this:
Quinoa porcupines (these were a huge hit with the party, and I'm glad to report I made extra and froze them. They will come in handy when school starts. For the tomato sauce, I made a basic marinara sauce from canned tomatoes) (about four dozen)
Herb-coated mini cheese balls (about four dozen)
Sesame rice balls (four dozen)
Falafel, purchased at the Saskatoon Farmers' Market (40) and cucumber yogurt sauce
Caprese salad of mini bocconcini cheese, grape tomatoes and fresh basil, tossed in a splash of Rozendal vinegar and Spanish olive oil
Grapes, cherries, and watermelon and cantaloupe balls
Whole wheat slider buns (the thought was that you could just skip the buns, or you could have a mini meatball sandwich, throw a cheese ball on top of that meatball, or you could go for a falafel on a bun for a veggie option)

And what does one make for a cake at a ball themed party? Cake pops did come to mind, but I was already chafing at the thought of having to roll all the balls listed above. And my week was packed too full to consider learn the entirely new skill of making cake pops.

What I am really good at is making cake and buttercream icing (with one small caveat which I will mention in my next post). And my sons had already fixed on the precedent that if they had to share a birthday party, at least that meant there would be chocolate cupcakes AND a vanilla slab cake. So how to decorate?

Well, God bless Martha Stewart (I don't often say that, but this time I do). In her Cupcakes cookbook, she had some sporty cupcake ideas, including these Slam Dunk Cupcakes. I realized I could make the slab cake into a basketball court, and voila! I had my ball-themed cake.

I even remembered to take a picture. Until next year.

So yeah, not exactly like Martha's version, but also not exactly a Pinterest Fail.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

A Belated Summer Meal Plan

Here in Saskatchewan, summer has been painfully slow to arrive. Now that we have hit July, it seems to have committed to being here, at least in between rainstorms. This week was the first time I started feeling the need to cook summery things, but considering this summer may be particularly fleeting, there is also a sense urgency about it.

It feels more like summer now that I have stocked my fridge with rosé wine, Stiegl Radler, and ginger beer. And now for the food...

My summer favourites have been popping into my head at intervals. I've already made a few. Last night was Crispy-skinned trout and salsa verde rice, posted in an earlier blog. I also made a trip to the Farmers' Market today, and paid an ungodly price for new potatoes, among other things. And this urge, combined with my list of Farmers' Market produce has inspired my menu plan this week.


Burnt eggplant with tahini (from Ottolenghi's Plenty, but reprinted here thanks to Veggies and Gin)
Marinated lamb chunks (I have these weird cuts of bone-in stewing lamb from the last time I got a whole lamb, but I've discovered they make great finger food if you marinate them in herbs and lemon juice and roast or grill them)
New potatoes with dill


Marinated buffalo mozzarella with tomatoes
Grilled Italian sausage
Cucumber salad (recipe to be determined, although Ottolenghi's Cucumber salad with garlic and ginger, but another of my favourites is Sweet and Sour Cucumbers with Fresh Dill)

Wednesday (one of my must-have summer combos)

Grilled pork chops with garlic lime sauce
Black bean and tomato quinoa
Watermelon with feta

Thursday and Friday I am off on our annual Wild/Wise Womyn's Trail Ride. I have offered to make Spatchcock chicken, partly for the chance to experience everyone cracking off-colour jokes about the name. It will be a challenge, as we cook over an open fire, and it will take some balancing of heat to cook the chicken without burning it. I'll report back later, hopefully with pictures. I also need to provide a marinated vegetable salad and another salad to go with the chicken. I haven't quite decided on that one, but am leaning toward cider-glazed carrot and quinoa salad. Have I mentioned I love Bon Appetit??