Thursday, December 29, 2011

New Years Preparation

We have two (possibly three) busy days ahead of us, first, my husband's delayed family Christmas is tomorrow. We will be spending the day at his brother's place, opening gifts, eating (more) turkey and drinking wine. I don't have to bring anything, but I will be bringing wine, chocolates, cookies and butter tarts (my mom sent me home with some wonderful things after Christmas, including a container of her most excellent pie crust, ready to be rolled and turned into a pie. I made some of it into tourtiere, which we've been eating for the last two days, and the rest of it has become butter tarts). Speaking of tourtiere, it may have something to do with my kids' French heritage, but I have to say they go crazy for meat pies.

I will be posting soon on the amazing array of food and ingredients that I have been gifted in the past while, but in the meantime I will say briefly that the other thing that I might be bringing to the party tomorrow is fresh, homemade goat cheese, because I became the bemused owner of 68L (give or take) of frozen goat's milk over the holiday.

Following Second Christmas is New Year's Eve, which also happens to be my birthday. We have started a tradition among our friends, and named it "Breeders' New Year": we invite all of our friends who have young children (and they invite some of their friends too) to come over, bring the kids, some food and wine, and have a chaotic but enjoyable New Year's Eve party which usually wraps up around 9PM.

I am blessed with several foodie friends, who will be bringing wonderful things to grace our table. For my own contribution I have settled on:
Ricotta and spinach empanadas (using the remainder of the empanada pastry in my freezer, and the freshly made goat cheese, which is very similar to ricotta)
Pork sausage with bacon and figs (from Pine View Farms), served with a fig and red wine dipping/spooning sauce (this recipe will be adapted from this recipe for spiced chorizo and figs, which we have made and enjoyed many times)
Beet Tartare from Mark Bittman's Food Matters
Marie's Rosemary Nut Crackers from Whitewater Cooks at Home
Blue Cheese and Pear Crostini

I also just bottled some apple brandy and creme de cassis, and I will be offering up my fruit brandies alongside sparkling wine for some delicious locally flavoured kir royales. (Kirs and kir royales are my favourite festive drink: just grab your favourite sparkling wine, fill up a champagne flute and finish with a tiny splash of cassis, cherry brandy, pomegranate juice, or whatever suits your fancy.)

And for any of you who need more ideas for a simple foodie New Year, a good friend sent me this link to an L.A. Times article. Some good stuff here!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Catering Post-Mortem

Last weekend, I catered a Christmas party and wine tasting with Doug Reichel Wine Marketing. It was the first time I had catered for people who didn't know me at all. I discovered a few things during this adventure, some related to cooking, and others relating to me. 

Apparently (who knew?) there's a lot of ego attached to my cooking. I claim to love cooking for itself alone, and that people enjoying the food that I make is just an added bonus. This is mostly true, but I found myself faced with clients who didn't know what I was capable of, and having to prove myself, which made me a little grumpy. If I were more of a drama queen, I may have shrieked, "Don't you know who I am?!"

But really, who am I to these people? I'm someone they've hired to perform a service, and a fairly lowly service at that. The wine was the focus; the food was a sideline. Once I wrestled with all of this for a few days, I got over myself and decided to treat the whole thing as a learning experience, and a chance to have a good time with Doug, whose wine I love, and whose company I enjoy.

From a catering perspective, I learned the importance of clear communication of expectations. I had to make some items ahead of time, and needed final numbers early. I didn't quite communicate this as clearly as required, and my client went out of town, then replied, FOUR DAYS before the event, that she was expecting 37 people instead of 50. I had said I would charge her per person, but a 25% reduction in numbers, on such short notice, would have eaten into my profits considerably, since I had already made the most labour-intensive items, and had purchased most of the groceries. She was reasonable about it, though, and so we both ended our experience satisfied, she with the product and what she was charged, and me with a reasonable profit (as long as I don't count the hours of list-making, planning, and lying awake trying to think of everything that might possibly go wrong).

The event went over well, and I also learned an important lesson in the midst of it: the art of letting go and not fretting over results that don't meet my high standards. My Bearnaise sauce didn't thicken, because I was paranoid of curdling it. The oven didn't run as hot as mine, so my pastries didn't brown as I would have liked. Those two dishes were the ones that got me the highest praise from the party goers. They could have been better. But I was the only person who knew that.

Here's the menu, for those who are curious, with links to the wines and recipes that I used:

• Destinéa Sauvignon Blanc with Citrus-marinated Seafood Salad (sans black olives)
• Mount Difficulty Chardonnay with Mini Prosciutto-wrapped Chicken Skewers and Béarnaise Sauce (used the recipe for the sauce from Alice Waters' The Art of Simple Food)
• Melipal Malbec and Traditional Argentinian Empanadas (with this pastry and this filling)
• Diesel Pinotage with Artisan Breads (from Christie's bakery), dipped in olive oil and Rozendal vinegar, served with vintage gouda and South African dryworst and biltong (traditional South African sausage and jerky)
Torreon de Paredes Reserve Late Harvest dessert wine with blue cheese shortbread topped with fig spread and Late Harvest wine poached pears

My days feel empty, now that I don't have to think about the planning of this event anymore. And that is a relief. Now on to wrapping up Christmas baking (one more item on my scaled-down list!) and then wrapping up Christmas baking (as gifts)!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Foodie Book Review #2: The Art of Living According to Joe Beef

My book-recommending librarian friend strikes again, ordering The Art of Living According to Joe Beef: A Cookbook of Sorts for me to borrow from the library. I started off flipping through it, thinking it looked kind of fun, and very much a restaurant that I will put on my bucket list for the next time I travel to Montreal. But the recipes (such as Lièvre à la Royale—taking two days and involving a rabbit, a hare, a veal trotter, caul fat, foie gras, truffles, and the reserved blood of the hare, among other things) weren't something I would be likely to try at home. 

At least not at first glance. As I looked through more carefully and got sucked into the stories and history of Montreal, and the playful voice of the whole thing, I stumbled across some real gems. For example, in their subsection titled "Tall Tales, Taste and a Few Theories" (all three of which I am a fan) they describe why the Big Mac is so popular (according to them, it is a perfect balance of salt, fat, sugar, acid and bite)—and then set out a series of simple recipes that combine the same perfect balance of flavour.

This will in no way convince me to go out and buy a Big Mac, since my farm upbringing (and lifetime access to real, healthy beef) has spoiled me forever for anything from McDonalds. I have never been able to enjoy it, even as a child. I always wanted to, because you're supposed to, but I was always disappointed in how it tasted. But I digress.

It was the chapter titled "The Smoker", backing on to the next chapter, "Building a Garden in a Crack Den," which got me totally hooked. They actually provided their plans for a homemade smoker (something my dad has built), and tucked in the middle of a book that uses all manner of meat, fat and foie gras, is a gorgeous chapter outlining their monthly garden harvest schedule and a recipe for Jerusalem Artichokes with Ketchup. 

And in the middle of that chapter was a revelation to me: Herbes Salées—salted herbs! I had never considered preserving my herbs in salt, but there was a recipe that explains how. In cold climates like Saskatchewan, this is pure gold! Apparently this is a traditional Quebec recipe. Quebec! You've been holding out on the rest of the country! And they store in the fridge for up to a year. I have currently been sneaking out to my herb patch for thyme, since it is merely frozen but not covered with snow. This won't be the case forever, though. I'm so excited to get at my herb bed next summer. I have to plant chervil...

Their booze and dessert chapters also got me thinking. The dessert recipes confirmed my attachment to Panna Cotta as a great quick and easy dessert (if your dinner guests give you a few hours' warning, so it can set), as well as sparking my interest in Eclairs and a cake called Marjolaine, a multi-layered confection of hazelnut cake, ganache, and vanilla and hazelnut buttercreams, that looks absolutely amazing. I may have to make it, very soon. My birthday is coming...

I'm getting more and more into the book as time passes. It's lying open next to me and I just discovered a totally doable recipe for "Onion Soup Sauce," described as "tasting like an extraction of the essence of onion soup." I gotta go. Gotta get back to the book.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The end of the ham = simple, delicious soup

I always marvel at recipes that taste so wholesome and delicious and have very few ingredients. I love making split pea soup because you can't get much simpler: toss a ham bone and some other ingredients in a pot, bring to a boil, simmer a couple of hours, and voila! Dinner an habitant would love.

I got this recipe from the ancient Good Housekeeping Illustrated Cookbook, copyright 1980. I added the celery, but otherwise, it is more or less exact.

Split Pea Soup

1 ham bone (left over from whole or half ham, preferably with enough meat left to make 1 1/2 cups)
1 lb. split peas
2 carrots, thinly sliced
1 celery stalk, thinly cliced
1 medium onion, chopped
7 c. water
1/4 t. whole allspice
1/4 t. peppercorns
1 bay leaf
Salt (if necessary. Mine didn't need any)

In a large Dutch oven over medium heat, heat bone, split peas, carrots, onion and water to boiling. Tie allspice, peppercorns and bay leaf in a piece of cheesecloth. Add to bone mixture. Reduce heat to low; cover, simmer 1 hour (or more, until peas have broken down completely). Discard spice bag; salt if necessary. Remove bone to cutting board. Cut off meat and discard bone. Cut meat into bite-size chunks and return to soup for serving.

My kids ate full bowls of the soup. This may be partly due to the fact that I implemented a moratorium on snacks today, since D has been living on peppernuts, crackers, and the occasional mini-mandarin. So they were hungry!

So there it is. We've used up the last of the gigantic ham.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Momentum Gets the Better of Me

I have long espoused the benefits of planning ahead when it comes to cooking; actually, when it comes to life with small children, planning ahead improves the potential outcomes of almost any situation (at least part of the time...too many variables for a guarantee any stronger than that).

I was pleased with my momentum this week—I planned to make an appetizer for a party that would leave me with a cranberry-teriyaki glaze matched to a recipe for Asian braised short ribs, and pulled short ribs out of my freezer to thaw. I made extra poststickers (my appetizer of choice), so we could eat them at our convenience after I froze some.

Then, my parents showed up. I love them dearly, but they invariably add to the chaos. This time, my dad did so by showing up with a 10-lb. picnic ham as a gift. I had just tossed it into my (brimming) deepfreeze when my husband commented that it would be nice to have ham for dinner and sandwiches throughout the week. Out came the ham, and in spite of the fact that dinner that night was to consist of only him and the boys (I was going to the party), the 10-lb. ham went in the oven.

Turns out the potstickers can't really be frozen, because the filling was too wet, and they were meant to be cooked right after filling them, but I didn't because I played volleyball right before the party, so I made the potstickers ahead of time. The wet filling made the wrappers extra gooey. They need to be cooked right away to be saved. So. They probably should be cooked tonight.

The teriyaki glaze is already made, and the short ribs are thawed, so in spite of the fact that the fridge now contains leftover empanada filling, some extra ground pork that I didn't use in the potstickers, a few dozen ready-to-cook potstickers (if they aren't already past saving), and most of a 10-lb. ham, I also have to cook the short ribs. If I don't cook them tonight, I won't get to them until Wednesday, because tomorrow night I am booked into a hot new restaurant to do a review. So. The ribs are on the stove, bubbling away; then I will have empanada filling, ground pork, potstickers, ham AND braised Asian shortribs to choose from. I hate wasting food. I hope I can find a pork/beef-loving person (or people) to help me out...

Planning ahead seemed like a good idea, until a ham got tossed into the mix. I guess I should enjoy the fact that I probably won't need to cook anything for any meal for the remainder of the week. I can rest up for my catering event next Saturday. And maybe catch up on Christmas baking...and, do my dishes.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Dumpling Madness

Today I made 100 beef empanadas, 100 blue cheese shortbreads, and then, in a fit of madness, decided to start on the pork potstickers that I plan to take to a girls' night tomorrow. Why I am making potstickers fast on the heels of 8 dozen empanadas, I have no idea. It's times like this that I realize why I felt a kinship with Julie Powell when I read Julie & Julia (the feeling ended when she imploded in her sequel, Cleaving).

My long suffering husband entertained the kids most of the day while I slept in, then started cooking, and kept on cooking right through to dinner-time (dinner was leftover picadillo filling from the empanadas, on top of pizza dough, topped with feta cheese). I remained cheerful, but I can't deny a touch of insanity, since it is past midnight and now I'm writing about food instead of going to sleep...

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Nuts: I Am What I Eat

I have been neglecting my blog posts while I scramble for sleep as Baby G cuts his last one-year molar, while also trying to coordinate plans for Christmas baking and gifting. I also picked up a catering gig for the 17th of December, which I'm looking forward to, but which also requires quite intensive planning in order to pull it off without a hitch. Hence, more thinking and list-making is going on, rather than blogging.

My meal plan was created on the fly this week, hence it wasn't much of a plan. I do have a couple of recipes to share though, which have nuts in common. As long as your children don't have nut allergies, and are past the risk of choking, nuts are an excellent, energy-dense, healthy fat-filled, and filling addition to a meal. The nuts were the most popular part of these two vegetarian meals this week:

Pineapple Tofu with Cashews, from Canadian Living
Spaghetti with Cauliflower, Green Olives and Almonds

The Spaghetti with Cauliflower, Green Olives and Almonds is a particular favourite of my husband and me, served with whole grain spaghetti. It is one of the few olive oil-based sauces that I find completely satisfying. Added Parmesan helps, too.

I will post again soon with the developments of both my catering gig and Christmas baking plans. First steps are in place—I purchased the Lee Valley Gingerbread Mold and gingerbread decorating ingredients today. I can't resist anything for the kitchen made from cast iron! Excited to use it.