Friday, September 23, 2011

Birthday Pie, Walk Down Memory Lane

"You sure know how to make a guy delirious."

It isn't every Amazon that can elicit a comment like that from her husband simply by serving mushy peas and brown gravy from a package. Perhaps it helps to provide context:

My husband loves meat in pastry. Anything remotely resembling a savoury pie gets his enthusiastic thumbs up. In our past pre-kid travels to New Zealand, we did our best to eat our weight in meat pies—evidence of this is here in a past blog.

On our more recent (two years ago recent) trip to Australia, we sampled a few pies as well, with the clear winner being a "Tiger" from Harry's Cafe de Wheels in Woolloomoolloo. This is a meat pie, topped with mashed potatoes, mushy peas and brown gravy. It was surprisingly delicious, and we still think of it fondly.

So enter hubby's true birthday, which is a bit of a let-down because we've already done the family dinner and fancy cake the previous Sunday. He has requested ground beef cooked with some kind of tomato sauce for his true birthday dinner, but what I have in the fridge are ready-made pies from The Prairie Pie Wagon. This is Saskatoon's version of Harry's Cafe de Wheels. I had four pies: pork, cherry and wild rice, turkey pot pie, steak and Guinness, and tourtiere.

I also had a good quantity of leftover buttermilk mashed potatoes. This got me thinking. Perhaps we could recreate a favourite vacation meal for his birthday? I had some green split peas, and with a quick stop at the nearby convenience store for a package of brown gravy mix (note, I NEVER buy this stuff, but in this case, it was required for authenticity's sake). I boiled up the peas, mashed them, mixed up the gravy, reheated the pies and potatoes, and voila! Nostalgic dinner extravaganza! And the resulting quote regarding delirium. Lucky me to be married to someone so easy to please. And by the way, he had the tourtiere, which I think meets his ground meat requirements. I didn't even outright ignore his request in making this dinner! A true step forward in our relationship.

Photo of the pie/peas/potatotes/gravy to come soon...promise!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Rack of Lamb from Heaven

Pulled together a tasty, tasty menu last night for good friends as a thank-you for letting us crash at their house for a painfully long time during our renovation. '10 days' turned into three or four weeks of space-sharing, which they offered up cheerfully. This little rack of lamb menu was the least I could do as thanks (they refuse to take gifts):

Mustard and herb crusted rack of lamb
Buttermilk mashed potatoes
Roasted cauliflower with garlic
Roasted beet salad with beet greens and feta

Mini raspberry lemon cream tartlets (another favourite use for lemon curd: just mix it about half and half with whipped cream, fill your favourite pre-baked tart shells, and top each with a fresh raspberry)

My friend is a librarian who orders books (often cookbooks) for the library she works for, and she brought over a recent collection of "food porn" for me to peruse. Not something I'm about to try to recreate, but it's a fascinating evolution of molecular gastronomy that is tied to place and season. In this case, place is Denmark, and the local ingredients are therefore familiar to Canadians: spruce buds, for example, wild blueberries, and...moss. Not kidding. Check out the Noma Cookbook. Beautiful and mind-bending. Maybe someday I might be tempted to turn a portion of my frontyard spruce tree into granita...or my neighbour's birch tree into a dessert...

Monday, September 19, 2011

Old-Fashioned Birthday Dinner

It isn't very often that my husband gets to choose what he wants for dinner. I usually consult with him loosely during my meal-planning and then do what I need to do, taking his preferences, but also what we have to use up, what's in the freezer, and what I'm in the mood to cook, into consideration.

But this week is his birthday, so he gets to pick two meals: the family dinner last night, and what he wants to eat on his actual birthday. The poor guy is so desperate for the comfort food of his childhood, his two choices were ham and scalloped potatoes, and "ground beef turned into something with tomato sauce." I followed his request for dinner last night to a 'T', including the Brussels sprouts, which were a slight challenge to find. So here's the menu:

Slow-cooker ham in apple juice (just poured a litre of apple juice over the ham and cooked it on high for 4 or 5 hours, then glazed it in the oven, with a mixture of brown sugar, honey and Dijon mustard, for about 20 minutes)
Scalloped potatoes (I no longer use a recipe for this, just do my thing and it works out)
Steamed Brussels sprouts
Lettuce and arugula salad with creamy blue cheese dressing
Lemon meringue cake a la Nigella Lawson, using the lemon curd recipe from Saturday's blog post

I would definitely do the ham this way again, and while everything turned out very well, the cake really did take the cake. I finished assembling it so close to dinner time and it got eaten so quickly (no leftovers) that I completely forgot to take pictures. If you click on the recipe link, though, you'll see it. It turned out exactly like that. And it was surprisingly easy, for something that looks so decadent. While Baby G was all about the main course, D inhaled his cake and then asked for more.


Tonight for dinner I'm going to use the leftover ham juice and make my mom's standard leftover ham and rice gumbo, although I'm going to use brown instead of white rice. Basically, you just cook the rice in the ham juice with the ham bone, add chopped ham and a can of brown beans. I might add some onions and celery as well. Very simple, but perfect comfort food. I'm coming down with the cold that has been circulating our house for the past week or more, so I'm really looking forward to a bowl full of steaming gumbo.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

On Lemon Curd (and how 'complicated' does not always equal 'better')

In 20 minutes, start to finish (at 11:30PM instead of sleeping) I just made a lovely lemon curd. As I was making it, I spent some time reflecting on previous lemon curd efforts, and thought, I'm glad I've now made enough lemon curd in my life to know that simple is best.

There are lemon curd recipes that require double boilers, eggs to be separated, and fancy lemons. In my ongoing "quest for the best," I did once turn a rare discovery of Meyer lemons in Saskatoon into Alice Waters' Meyer Lemon Curd. Alice Waters is a hero of mine, and if she recommends a lemon curd recipe, I'm going to assume it's going to be the best lemon curd I've ever tasted. While this has been the case with other recipes I've made from her Chez Panisse collection, it wasn't so with the lemon curd.

The Meyer lemon curd was very very good, but it wasn't good enough to justify the extra effort of separating eggs, finding uses for the egg whites, and so on. And basically, the recipe calls for milk as well, which seems to only be required to thin the mixture because the egg yolks thicken it too much. The dead-easy, no egg separating version from The Canadian Living Cookbook was just as smooth (in fact, smoother, because it seems to be more forgiving if you let it get too close to boiling, which I often do) and just as delicious, had a pleasing luminous yellow colour, and was perhaps more satisfying because it took less effort.

Sometimes it is worth the effort to undertake a fussy recipe. I often do so and will again. But there are so many culinary challenges out there that are truly difficult; so why make things any harder than they need to be? This, I confess, is one of the reasons I often run out of patience with Martha Stewart recipes. I usually cut out half of the steps and the results are still just as good as if I'd spent the extra hour and followed the directions exactly.

So here is my favourite Lemon Curd recipe. Rest assured I have done the research for you. No need to look elsewhere, or get any more fussy than this:

(from The Canadian Living Cookbook)
3 eggs, beaten
1 c. granulated sugar
1/2 c. lemon juice
1 T. grated lemon rind
1/4 c. butter

In a small, very heavy saucepan, combine all ingredients. Cook at just below a boil, stirring almost constantly, until thick enough to thickly coat a spoon (I find the thickening process to happen almost instantly), about 15 minutes. The mixture will thicken as it cools. Store in covered jar in refrigerator.

Spread this on toast or scones, mix half and half with whipped cream to fill tart shells, scoop out of the jar with your finger, or use in any recipe that calls for lemon curd. Mine is an ingredient in my husband's birthday cake. More on that tomorrow.

Tomato Soup Even Babies Love

Check out this cream of tomato soup recipe. It tastes very similar to the canned stuff I used to love as a kid, but this time you control all the ingredients and know exactly what's in it. I love that you can throw in tomatoes with seeds and all, because you run it through a strainer when you're done. Baby G (just 13 months old tomorrow) finished off his little bowl, even picked up the whole thing and drank what he couldn't get with his spoon. Goldfish crackers were the perfect accompaniment, which pleased D to no end.

I've made this with canned tomatoes and fresh, and I was surprised to find that the canned tomatoes were actually a little more tomatoe-y. Both were good though!

Oatmeal-free Crisp

I haven't really gotten into singing the praises of Quinoa 365 yet, but I think I'm about to start. Yesterday I spent some time demonstrating to D how to slice apples with the apple wedger without cutting his finger (and also re-stating that he should never touch it without a grown-up's help), which meant I ended up with a large collection of sliced apples, just right for a crisp.

The problem was, I didn't have any oatmeal (used it all up making morning glory muffins). I vaguely remembered seeing some kind of crisp or crumble recipe in Quinoa 365, so I looked, and discovered that you can basically just swap out the oatmeal for quinoa flour in your favourite recipe.

It isn't like oatmeal is a poorer nutritional choice, but quinoa does have the benefit of a uniquely nutty flavour and a higher protein count. So I guess it depends whether you want to tout your dessert as having cholesterol-lowering properties (oatmeal), or that it packs a protein punch (quinoa!).

I realize that not everyone who runs out of rolled oats will have quinoa flour lying around, but if you happen to be shopping at your local health food store and come across some quinoa flour, you may want to pick it up. It may soon become a staple in my pantry.


I just discovered the link above for morning glory muffins is no longer working. Here is the recipe!

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!

Friday, September 16, 2011

It's All About Balance (Right?)

This week's events are a good example of how even the best-laid plans often can't hold up to life with small children.

Here's how things unfolded:

My husband has been out of town. My original plan was to plan a simple meal the first night he was away, and then live on leftovers the second night. First, he didn't leave until after dinner the first night, so my leftover quantities were diminished (I was glad to have him there otherwise, don't get me wrong). He has also started packing a lunch, so my leftovers weren't quite as plentiful as I'd hoped.

This meant I needed to actually cook something on the second night I was on my own. That's fine, I just pulled out a fillet of lake trout, since the boys both love fish. Fish and oven fries would fit the bill nicely.

However. Right when I was supposed to be starting dinner, D decided to check out my new Pampered Chef apple wedger, and promptly sliced his thumb open to the point where he needed stitches. I called my mother-in-law for back-up, so I didn't have to deal with both baby G and D in the waiting room and while D needed to be held down for his needle. We waited about an hour, from 5:30-6:30, and after the stitches (two), we were out of there at 7:15. I had warded off hunger with a few snacks, but we still needed to eat. I decided to do the quickest option, and picked up Vern's pizza by the slice. Truly not my favourite pizza, but it filled a void.

Fish is still in the fridge, ready to be cooked tonight.

Because of this series of fortunate events, I was also low on lunch items for my sitter and the kids. Due to my weakened emotional and mental state after yesterday's challenges, I caved and pulled out a package of hot dogs.

Now, this may not be a big deal for many people. But let me provide some context. When I left home and moved out on my own, when I was 17, I promised myself I would never buy hot dogs. Smokies and Kraft Dinner were okay, but I drew the line at wieners. I wanted to make sure I cooked and ate well and never gave in to the easy fix. This has truly served me well, gave me a great start on my life as a foodie, and I honestly never did buy hot dogs for a quick, easy meal.

In the past 20 years since I left home, I can count on one hand the number of times I purchased a package of hot dogs. And then, only because we were having a wiener roast. Even for wiener roasts, I usually opt for something more recognizable as meat, like sausage.

Case in point, the hot dogs in my freezer were left over from G's birthday cook-out, and they didn't get used because everyone chose the smokies I brought instead.

But there they were, along with a can of beans, and because they were there, I gave in to it. Gave Grandpa the lunch plan instructions.

And promptly headed out the door to work at Caffe Sola, where I enjoyed delicious tomato soup and a fig chevre tart for lunch. I'm a hypocrite, I know. But only today. And I feel compelled to confess. That's something, isn't it?

I'm not sure it makes up for today's transgressions, but I did feed my boys hot 12-grain cereal for breakfast, and then turned the leftovers into cookies. I always feel guilty when I have leftover porridge, because it's so good for you, and I hate waste in general. I made oatmeal bread with leftover oatmeal recently, and it was wonderful. So why not cookies?

I haven't perfected the recipe yet, but here's what I did:

2 c. flour
1 t. baking powder
1/4 c. baking soda
1 t. salt
1 c. sugar
1 t. cinnamon
1/4 t. nutmeg
2/3 c. butter
2 eggs
1 1/2 c. leftover multigrain porridge
1/2 c. raisins

Mix together dry ingredients, mix in butter and eggs until creamy (2 minutes or so) and the stir in porridge and raisins.

These turned out to be kind of cakey, sort of a cross between hermits and toothy snickerdoodles. I will make them again, and when I do, I will use brown sugar instead of white, use half whole wheat and half white flour, and a 1/2 t. vanilla. They were good enough for me to eat three of them while still well as the leftover hot dog. With mustard. It's not like I get that chance every day.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Changing Menus on the Fly

My original plan for Tuesday night's dinner (meat, grain and greens loaf, grilled squash and tomatoes) got fancied up a little, thanks to Pine View Farm's suggestion to stuff pattypan squash. It was pattypans that I had, so I decided to stuff the meatloaf into the squash. The remainder of the meat mixture, I patted into muffin pans to make mini-loaves.

The tomatoes also got fancied up as well when I stumbled across an herb- and cheese-stuffed tomato recipe in The Occasional Vegetarian while looking for a tomato soup recipe. Simply toss fresh herbs (oregano, thyme and parsley) with shredded cheese, breadcrumbs, salt and pepper, press over seeded tomatoes (I didn't cut the centres out, just cut them in half and gently pressed out seeds and pulp) and drizzle with olive oil. Bake at 350F and then brown briefly under the broiler.

I also added fresh corn to the menu because my dad stopped by with some of the corn picked by my grandfather and uncle. It was delicious. The meal ended up being much prettier and more delicious than I had expected (although the meatloaf wasn't terribly flavourful, it was good for us, and we spiced it up with a ketchup/hot sauce combo...I NEVER use ketchup, but this dish called for it).

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

First Frost

No matter how far removed we think we are from the farm (and I admit I'm not all that far removed), Saskatchewan people still scurry like squirrels at the first sign of frost. Tonight is the night. It's midnight, and the thermometer reads 3.4 degrees Celsius. Our neighbours came home from the lake a day early; my dad was in the city but rushing home to help my mom pick vegetables; my grandfather and my uncle were picking corn, cucumbers and amaranth; my cousin was also rushing home to instruct her husband on what parts of the garden needed to be covered; I was outside just before dark, picking basil and gathering the remainder of my meagre harvest: 4 yellow zucchini, 15 beans, 1 tiny Armenian cucumber (the only one my sad little plants produced), 7 red and 12 green tomatoes.

For me, the basil is the precious commodity. I preserve as much of it as I can to offer that taste of summer through the cold months when my only other option is to hope they stock it at the supermarket. And that stuff never tastes as good as what I grow. My two favourite basil preservation recipes:

Pesto (from the Lazy Gourmet cookbook—I tend to go back to this one because it makes the basil go a long way. It's a bit more runny than some pestos, but not at all fussy, and has beautiful flavour)

2 c. fresh basil, tightly packed
1 1/2 c. olive oil
1/3 c. pine nuts, toasted
3/4 c. grated Parmesan cheese
1 1/2 t. salt and freshly ground black pepper, combined (I do 1 t. salt, 1/2 t. pepper)
1 t. chopped garlic (I just throw in a large, whole garlic clove and let the food processor do the chopping)

Combine all ingredients in a food processor and process into a paste. Can be refrigerated up to a week or frozen up to 3 months.

I'll be freezing mine.

The remainder of my basil, once I run out of pine nuts and Parmesan to make pesto, is simply processed with a pinch of salt and enough olive oil to make a paste, and then frozen. This is super handy in the middle of winter when a recipe calls for chopped basil. That little patty or ice cube of pureed herb is probably equivalent to a quarter cup of loosely chopped basil, and each time I taste it, I am delighted.

Happy hunkering down for all you foodies preparing for fall. I am already anticipating delicious winter soups and stews. And to those in the southern hemisphere preparing for spring, and those of you in climates where you can pick fresh basil all year round, please don't rub it in.

Monday, September 12, 2011

A Foodie Milestone of Sorts

I realized tonight that I have passed a milestone that needs to be acknowledged. In 2002, my husband, who then worked at a print shop, brought my burgeoning, chaotic stack of recipe clippings—some from magazines, some hand-written, others printed from websites—under control. He encouraged me to think about how I would organize them (which I like to do up to the concept stage, but never manage to get past that). He then took my list of groupings, bought me two large binders, and printed out tabbed dividers with titles like "Appetizers", "Breakfasts", "Meat", "Seafood" and so on, according to my directions.

It wasn't until I was laid off that summer that I actually found the time to organize the binders. But when I was finished, I loved them and used them constantly. I have to say though that 3" and 4" binders can be a little unwieldy. They have grown over the past decade to be chaotic once again, and they have been bursting at the seams for several years now.

Well, once again, my husband has taken it upon himself to get the ball rolling. He provided me with eight binders, for which I specified the sizes I need. Tonight I finished the process of transferring my recipes to those eight binders. There are now the following combinations:
• Appetizers
• Soups/Salads
• Breakfast
• Side Dishes/Vegetarian
• Desserts/Baking/Ice Cream
• Pasta/Seafood
• Meat (loosely organized into lamb, wild game, chicken, beef and pork)
• Beverages/Miscellaneous (canning, babyfood, edible flowers, and so on)

I do not pretend to be finished with this project—there is still close to a three-inch binder of loose pages that need to be relocated to the new system; there is also a box (or two) of clippings and magazines yet-to-be-clipped in my basement. It's an on-going process. I may need to do further divisions in the future, or expand to larger binders. It's an evolution. And don't even think of suggesting I digitize.

And yet, while this project will never be complete, as I placed those eight new binders on to my newly built cookbook shelf in my newly renovated kitchen, and bid farewell to the monster binders that I have pored over and handled ragged for the last nine years, I feel that this moment should be marked somehow. It's bittersweet. Growth and change. You can't embrace them without a tiny sense of loss.

HOWEVER. No sense of loss is worth NOT doing something. My ultimate reward came tonight when I pulled out a loose set of sheets from one of my old binders' back pockets and came upon a recipe that I had thought lost to me forever. Hazelnut Shortbread! Just in time for Christmas baking planning for 2011! And I didn't even drink all of the Frangelico I bought in order to make the cookies last year!

Hazelnut Shortbread (originally published in Canadian Living, December 2002, and not on their website, last time I checked. How fitting, for the recipe to be dated the same year this whole binder journey began...)
1 c. hazelnuts
1 c. butter, softened
1/2 c. packed brown sugar
3 T. hazelnut liqueur (Frangelico)
1 t. vanilla
1/4 c. cornstarch
pinch salt
1 3/4 c. all-purpose flour
Hazelnut glaze:
1 1/2 c. icing sugar
2 T. hazelnut liqueur or water
2 T. water

On rimmed baking sheet, toast hazelnuts in 350F oven until fragrant, about 15 minutes. Place nuts on a tea towel; rub briskly to remove as much of the skins as possible. Let cool. In food processor or with a sharp knife, chop finely.

In a large bowl, beat butter with sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in liqueur and vanilla. Stir in cornstarch and salt, then flour, 1/3 at a time, to make a smooth dough. Add nuts and stir gently till combined. Divid dough in half. Refrigerate until firm but not hard, 30 to 60 minutes.

Between 2 sheets of waxed paper, roll each half to 1/4-inch thickness; refrigerate until chilled, about 30 minutes. using 2-inch floured round cookie cutter, cut out rounds, rerolling scraps. Place 1 inch apart on parchment paper-lined baking sheets; refrigerate until firm, about 2 hours. (you can make ahead at this point if you want, either layered in an airtight container at room temperature for up to a week, or freeze for up to a month. Add a few minutes to baking time)

Bake at 325F until golden, 15 to 20 minutes. Let cool on pan for 2 minutes, then transfer to racks to cool completely.

Hazelnut glaze: Whisk together ingredients to make a smooth, spreadable glaze. Spread over cookies.

Now I know this sounds fussy. Yes, the last time I made them was before I had kids. But I liked them enough to remember the recipe years later, so I will make them again, if only as a thank-you to the Universe for leading me to my long-lost recipe.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Meal Plan #14: Tail end of summer

Autumn literally rode in on a wind this evening, with the temperature dropping 10 degrees in a couple of hours, and a rainstorm ending our week-long heat wave. I'm wavering between disappointment and relief, because I was loving the bonus hot days, but was actually running out of hot weather meal ideas (well, that's not really true. It was more like I had mentally started preparing for cooler weather, and then had to shift gears back into hot weather mode, which was hard to do).

Yesterday when I served D some pasta (a kid-friendly recipe that puts zucchini to good use), he announced that he didn't want that; he wanted pizza. So tonight I decided to do pizza on the grill, since it was too hot to use the oven. By 5:30pm, the temperature was plummeting, and we could have used the oven, but I was already committed. The pizzas were simple, but delicious—homemade pesto as a base, and then sliced tomatoes and bocconcini laid over top. D had a great time helping me roll out the pizza crust and messing around with the dough, which makes me think that an afternoon of making buns that he helps me shape might be a really enjoyable activity. I'll tack it to my to-do list and try to remember to take photos.

Here is the remainder of the week's meal plan, which is a concerted effort to use up a long list of seasonal ingredients. Although I realized, after I had made the plan and done my grocery shopping, that I have a gallon pail of ripe tomatoes sitting on my counter, and I neglected to put them to use in any meaningful way. I have an abundance of chicken stock at the moment, so perhaps I will be making them into soup...

Grilled pork chops (my favourite seasoning for good quality chops from happy pigs is to do a quick cure in the morning, sprinkling them with generous amounts of kosher salt, fresh ground pepper, a tiny pinch of allspice and some crushed bay leaf. So simple, but that's all that is required when you eat the meat of healthy, happy animals. Thanks to Alice Waters and the Chez Panisse Cafe Cookbook for this perfect recipe)
Roasted beet salad with beet greens and feta (I mentioned in my last post that I am always looking for the 'best' of everything. So far, I haven't been able to top this beet recipe for simplicity and flavour. This is a standard summer dish at our house, and I have shared it with countless friends and family members who have tried it and then asked for the recipe)
Baked spaghetti squash (simply done, cut in half, seeded, baked cut side down for about 40 minutes, served with farm butter and sea salt)

Meat and grain loaf (The recipe, from Mark Bittman's Food Matters, has been posted on the blog "Simple Food. Healthy Life". I've chosen the recipe primarily because it uses a large amount of spinach, which is one of the things I have to use up this week)
Grilled patty pan squash
Fresh tomatoes

Wednesday (my husband is away for two nights at a conference. I have cleared my schedule of all other stresses so that I can be a happy and calm mom for my boys for those two days. I'm grateful to have the luxury to do that, but at the same time, I will still be doing my best to keep the cooking simple)
Teriyaki noodles with broccoli and edamame (also from Food Matters—you'll note the original recipe calls for asparagus, but the asparagus at the store came from Peru. I figured I'd opt for broccoli that had been grown a little closer to home)

Hubby still away, so I'm thinking I'll just plan for leftovers, of which there should be plenty. If I can find a sitter, I may also have to go to a preschool executive meeting that evening, so limiting the amount of prep and dishwashing is probably a wise coping strategy.

My husband is back, but not until right at dinner time, so I'm thinking of doing something simple and popular: our chicken wing/sweet potato oven-fry/veggie sticks and dip supper. And probably a beer. Or some more rosé

Speaking of my 'quest for the best', I have just made my all-time favourite muffins, which are a perfect option for this time of year, since the recipe calls for large quantities of grated zucchini, carrots and apples, all of which are in ample supply right now. These morning glory muffins, sourced from a bed and breakfast's website, have to be one of the most requested recipes I make. My kids, my family, my volleyball team, all either want me to bring the muffins or share the recipe or both (I have occasionally been persona non grata at volleyball tournaments when I neglect to bring a bag or two of these muffins.) They have also been fantastic sellers at bakesales and fundraisers. I thought D was a huge fan of muffins in general, but it turns out that his concept of 'muffin' equals these particular muffins. All others are at risk of rejection. Try them—and let me know if they fulfill your own 'quest for the best'.

Don't Mess with the Amazon's Morning Ritual

I've never really thought of myself as a creature of habit. There once was a time when my husband, then my boyfriend, would mourn the meal we just ate, because he thought it was delicious, but he knew he would never have it again. I was known for making a recipe only once, and then moving on to the next exciting possibility. I was always looking for the 'best' recipe. The best oatmeal cookies, the best way to cook salmon, the best steak marinade, the best cake.... I was also on the lookout for the 'best' ingredients: the best butter, the best coffee, and so on.

The challenge with constantly searching for the 'best' (and of course 'best' is subjective according to my own tastes, and may not be everyone's favourite or anyone else's definition of 'best') is that eventually you find it, and then everything beyond that pales in comparison. And while I love finding the pinnacle of whatever I am searching for at the time, the fact remains that from then on, unless I keep using/eating/cooking that pinnacle, I will always be disappointed.

This was brought home to me in a painful way this morning when I discovered we were out of sugar for my coffee. Over the past several years I have narrowed my requirements for coffee. After a couple of years as a graduate student where I was so addicted to coffee that I would drink a pot and then fall asleep on the couch at 10am rather than do my required reading, I entered the office environment. After a couple of years in an office with typically awful coffee, I weaned myself off it completely in favour of tea, because I couldn't bring myself to drink bad coffee. At that point, I only drank coffee I enjoyed, mostly on weekends, or purchased espresso drinks from local coffee shops.

More recently, I have honed my requirements even more. We drink a couple of blends, depending on where we can get to when we're out of coffee. I'm quite pleased with Kicking Horse coffee, and prefer the Kootenay Crossing blend. It is bold and full bodied, but not at all bitter or acidic. We also pick up a specific half and half blend of fair trade organic Sumatran/Guatemalan blend from McQuarrie's Tea and Coffee Merchants, whenever we're on Broadway. And I brew it strong. Then I add Sucanat, organic raw sugar cane, which, with the molasses still intact, offers a nice full, round, mellow sweetness that makes normal white sugar taste flat in comparison. I follow that with a large teaspoonful of the uber-rich farm cream that we have sourced and a sprinkling of cinnamon.

When we realized we were out of Sucanat, the coffee had already been poured. My husband looked at me with something akin to fear behind his eyes, and he asked, speaking rather quickly, "We'reoutofSucanatwhatareyougoingtouseinstead,honey?" (the 'honey' was referring to sweetener, not a pet name). I opted for brown sugar, and didn't freak out as much as hubbie had feared, thinking that the brown sugar would be too similar to Sucanat for me to notice the difference. Well, I was wrong. The coffee was sub-par because the sweetness was different, and I was left not only disappointed in my morning cuppa, but also wondering how/when I had become so set in my ways.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Lovely Dinner Menu

Tonight's dinner party was a success—it only took one afternoon (yesterday) of slightly neglecting my children to pull it off. Because I got so much done yesterday, I was able to relax today, play with the kids, and still get dinner finished more or less on time. More or less, because I was cooking the rice outside on my bbq burner (to avoid heating my house during this September heat wave), forgot about it, and burned it beyond recognition. I feel terrible, not just for the wasted food, but because I really did a number on the 40-year-old Le Creuset pot that was a wedding gift to my parents. I currently have it soaking in vinegar and baking soda. If anyone has any suggestions for cleaning a pot covered in burned-on brown rice, please let me know!

Because it was brown rice, it took another 45 minutes to cook, so dinner would have been ready before 6:00 (which is perfect for a family with young kids), but instead it was done sometime after 6:00. This menu was especially satisfying because it was full of ingredients that came from local gardens: yellow squash, cucumber, corn, fava beans, basil, lovage and parsley. So fresh and healthy—not to mention delicious!

Here's the menu:

Crispy-skinned salmon with salsa verde rice (previously published on my blog in July)

Fava bean salad with roasted garlic vinaigrette (this was lovely, although I didn't recreate it completely faithfully, because there has been a walnut recall and I couldn't locate any walnuts in the city. It would have been great with walnuts, but even without, it was a fantastic late-summer salad, with what I could scrounge from the fava beans' final gasp in my mom's garden)

Yellow squash and bell pepper torte (I'll post a photo soon—it turned out beautifully. The flavour of this isn't really terribly intense. It truly is just a pretty stack of roasted vegetables. However, I consider it perfect as an homage to fresh, seasonal vegetables. And for that reason, I will grow yellow squash in my garden next year for the chance to make it again.)

Sorbetto di Uva (Concord grape sorbet) (For anyone wondering what to do with their overabundance of hardy grapes, I strongly recommend this recipe. I used Concord grapes, but as I made it, I was thinking about all my friends with grape vines here in Saskatoon. You may have to up the sugar content a bit, but I'm sure the result with local grapes would be amazing. Just grapes and sugar, pureed, strained and frozen. Even grapes with seeds would work. Cool, velvety heaven!)

If I do say so myself (and I do), this menu was a fitting use of my new kitchen, and a fitting 'thank-you' to the friend who acted as my design sounding board during the long and painful decision-making and planning process.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Cons of Whole Food Eating

There are very few drawbacks to eating whole, fresh food. Daily, I am grateful for having access to fresh food and for making the time to prepare it. Last night, however, I suffered (a little) by my lifestyle choice.

We were away on the weekend, and came back home with a box full of fresh garden produce from my parents' place. Between that and our already full fridge, garden and freezer, there was no need to go shopping for groceries.

Or so I thought.

In an effort to stop spending money on lunches out, my hubby has started making sandwiches. This has put a sudden strain on our dwindling bread supplies (I usually buy about five loaves of Christies' multigrain bread at a time and freeze it). I came home at 10PM, starving, after a night of juggling a birthday party, volleyball practice and my preschool AGM to discover that after hubby finished making his lunch for the next day, we had one slice of bread remaining and virtually no milk in the fridge.

I had to find something to eat without taxing our limited options for breakfast food—not enough milk for cereal, not enough bread for toast, and so on.

"What can I eat?" I said, half to myself.
"Chips?" offered hubby.

While that may tempt me at times, I really needed something with substance, and there was nothing to eat that didn't require bread to put it on (salami, tomatoes, cheese...would have all made a great sandwich...but no bread). I didn't want to make soup at 10PM, and I wanted more than fruit. I needed protein!

My 10PM snack ended up being a can of sardines in tomato sauce on soda crackers, followed by a nectarine and a bit of yogurt. Probably a healthier snack than my usual toast and peanut butter or a bowl of cereal, after all, but for a short while, I was cursing my whole food lifestyle and wishing I had...I don't even know...something salty and satisfying that I could throw in the microwave.

Except we don't even own a microwave.

Breakfast solutions ended up being pretty satisfying after all—I whipped up our favourite batch of banana pancakes, although that didn't happen quite fast enough to ward off crazy behaviour in my two boys. Hungry kids in the morning are hard to manoeuvre around when they're fighting, screaming, and crying.

But that's all behind me now. We're now restocked with bread and milk, as well as all the fixings I need to make a sweet dinner party tomorrow night for my good friend the interior designer who consulted with us on our kitchen finishes. She hasn't seen the final results, which as of yesterday are now 100% complete. Photos to come, after I pick up the mess of toys, shoes and volleyball gear that are currently scattered everywhere.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Quick Breakfast Discovery

I picked up a copy of Quinoa 365 while on holidays this summer, and while I haven't really delved too deeply into the book just yet, I have tried the simplest recipe and am already a convert. It's a new (to me, at least) take on whole foods for breakfast, and is so easy I just had to share. My kids are quite enthusiastic about it as well.

While there is a specific recipe, I have taken to looking at it as a guideline that relies on a formula. If you get the formula right, you can mix and match your favourite flavours:

Overnight Quinoa Cereal (make it your own)

Sweeten 1 cup of plain yogurt to taste (using maple syrup, brown sugar, honey, whatever you like) and add any seasonings you might like, like a touch of vanilla or pinch of cinnamon.

Mix in 1/2 cup large-flaked rolled oats and 1/4 c. quinoa flour

Add to that 1/4 c. each of your favourite seeds, nuts, and dried fruit (the original recipe calls for two kinds of dried fruit—cranberries and apricots—but raisins, apples, anything would work).

Cover and place in the fridge overnight. The yogurt softens the oats and dried fruit, the quinoa thickens it up and adds a protein kick, and in the morning you have an instant, healthy, hearty, cold breakfast that your kids might just go for.

So easy, and the flavour combo possibilities are endless!