Monday, February 27, 2012

Long Awaited Kitchen Renovation Shots!

Now that I have a new computer, I have a functioning CD drive, and I can post shots of our new kitchen! Here they are...
Here is the view from the living room, over the island. There used to be a wall here.
Another view of the workspace. Note much-maligned corner sink (we are still glad we chose it)

Built-in spice cabinet, with built-in spice drawer beneath
The island cabinetry, with built-in dishwasher, close to dining room. (The counter tops are never this clean!)

Built-in cabinets and countertops in the dining room (also never this clean)

So there it is. If you can't remember what it used to look like, check out my earlier blog. It is a vast improvement—we love being in the space, and I love cooking in it. There are a few minor glitches that we discovered after the fact about how the space works (such as, the garbage/recycling pull-out is right by the sink, but if someone is washing dishes, they are in the way of anyone who needs to throw something in the recycling/garbage. That sort of thing). 

I'd also like to say besides the real wood cabinetry, we did not opt for high-end materials. Our kids beat the hell out of everything, and we decided now is not the time to go for fancy floors or countertops. We love the Formica 180fx laminate countertop, which looks like granite (it is actually a scan of a full-sized slab of real granite), but is much more forgiving when you drop a plate or glass on it (which happens often). Ditto the faux terra cotta tile vinyl flooring. It has a slightly rubberized texture, which actually causes dropped glasses to bounce. I know granite countertops and tile floors are all the rage, but I have never liked actual granite counters because they are so hard and cold. Having spent hours standing on tile floors while cooking, I can also say with authority that my vinyl floors are much easier on my poor feet.

Thanks to Esprit Photography for the gorgeous shots, and thanks so much to MK Kitchens for their wonderful cabinet work. And also thanks to our friend Cameron of Apperley Electric for his re-wiring help, and to my dad for the intensive plumbing and gas-fitting renovations. Considering we had to remove a wall and then re-do the ceiling, flooring and paint for the entire living area, this turned into much more than 'just' a kitchen reno. But very worth it!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Meal Plan Review

I promised I would let everyone know what I thought of the new recipes I was trying this week, but then my new computer arrived, and I had to spend a couple of days transferring files, etc. So I was offline, unexpectedly. The good news is that now I have a working disk drive, and can post the photos of our new kitchen! I will do this for my next post. For now, I would like to say that Tuesday's skillet tamales didn't rock my world. They weren't too exciting, and mostly contained a lot of corn—both cornmeal and kernel corn. Mark Bittman has another tamale recipe that calls for quinoa, and I think I'll try that one next time I'm in the mood for tamales.

Wednesday's tortilla melts, on the other hand, rocked everyone's world. I knew they would. How can you go wrong with roasted portabellas, cream cheese, pesto, tomatoes and mozzarella, all in one sandwich?

Tortilla Melts (from Moosewood's Simple Suppers)

3 T. olive oil, plus more for brushing on tortillas
1 T. balsamic vinegar
2 large portabella mushroom caps
1 small red onion
salt and black pepper
6 flour tortillas (about 8" in diameter)
3 T. cream cheese, softened
3 T. pesto (I had homemade in the freezer)
1 large tomato, sliced
6 oz. sliced mozzarella, smoked mozzarella or provolone

Preheat the oven to 450F. Lightly oil a baking sheet

In a bowl, whisk together 3 T. olive oil and the vinegar. Slice the portabellas and red onion and add to the bowl. Stir well to coat evenly with marinade. Spread on the baking sheet and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast in the oven until the onions are softened and the mushrooms are juicy, about 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and set aside. Reduce oven temperature to 350F.

To build sandwiches, lightly brush one side of two tortillas with oil and place them oiled side down on a clean baking sheet. Spread the top side of the tortillas with cream cheese. Pile roasted portabellas and onions on the cream cheese. Spread pesto on two more tortillas and lay them on top of the onions. Top the pesto-covered tortillas with tomato and cheese slices. Place the last two tortillas on the stacks and brush the tops with oil. Bake until the cheese is melted and the top and bottom of the tortillas are crisp, about 15 minutes.

Let the sandwiches cool for a minute or two before cutting.

While Baby G went for the potato, bean and arugula soup, D loved these sandwiches. Me too! Will definitely be making this sandwich, or variations thereof, again.

Monday, February 20, 2012

(Hopefully) Feeling Better Meal Plan #17

Another sure sign that I'm feeling better is having the energy to plan meals and pick up groceries. This is the first time I've had that urge in about three weeks. It feels so good to have a plan!

Mabo Don 
Crisp-fried brown rice (I tried to turn my leftover brown basmati rice into rice cakes to pan-fry, but it refused to stick together. Instead, I just packed it into a cast iron frying pan with a bit of oil over medium heat and ignored it while I made the rest of the meal. The reheated rice then had at least some satisfying crunch)
Vegetable stir-fry (our neighbours went away on an extended holiday and once again brought us a bag of vegetables before their departure. I used a partial head of Napa cabbage, onion, carrot, celery and cauliflower, sauced with a splash of oyster sauce, a splash of hoisin, and a splash of water)

My packages of ground pork come in 1+ lb. packages. I therefore have the remainder of a package to use. I found a recipe for Skillet tamales with pork in Mark Bittman's Food Matters. Let me try it and I'll share the recipe if it's good.
I'll top up this meal with a salad or fresh veggies and some avocado

Tortilla melt (a layered sandwich including roasted portobellos, tomato, mozzarella and pesto...going to be YUMMY) from Moosewood's Simple Suppers
Red bean, potato and arugula soup, also from Simple Suppers.

(Probably) pan-fried fish
Lemon rice
Shredded Brussels sprout salad
Some other veggie

Our other Friday tradition (besides pizza):
Roasted chicken wings
Roasted sweet potato and potato wedges
Veggie sticks and dip

I promise to take more time to write out recipes that turn out well (for Tuesday and Wednesday). For now, I must go rest and prepare for yet another specialist's appointment (trying to beat a ridiculous lymph node infection) in the morning.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Signs a Sick Foodie is Feeling Better

I don't know about other foodies, but for me, as an illness starts to wane, there are sure signs that I'm feeling better.

First, I start craving comfort food from my childhood. Fridays when I was growing up were pizza and milkshake days. I made pepperoni mushroom pizza and strawberry milkshakes for the family.

Second, I start flipping through cookbooks, thinking about things I would make if I had the energy and inclination. Yesterday, I was making a list of things I want to make from King Arthur Flour's Whole Grain Baking cookbook. For the record, my to-bake list now includes coconut scones and oatmeal cinnamon swirl bread. Earlier today, I pulled a couple of slightly neglected cookbooks off the shelf and flipped through them for ideas, both for family meals and future entertaining.

Third, I start thinking of ways to make the meals I cook just a little more special. I wanted to have a nice meal tonight, so I had thawed some steaks. I didn't just want any old steaks, though. I was tempted to run to the store to get blue cheese, but opted instead to make a garlic-chive butter to slather over them. Along with that, I decided to make roasted Brussels sprouts, Caesar salad, and potatoes Anna.

Potatoes Anna are my new favourite thing. They have so few ingredients, and the final results are stunning. They do require a couple of special tools, though—it's helpful to have a mandoline or some kind of slicer that will slice the potatoes as thin as possible. You also need a good skillet that can go from stove-top to oven at 400F. Other than that, you just need butter, salt and pepper.

Preheat the oven to 400F. Peel and slice thinly 5 or 6 medium potatoes. Butter a 9- or 10-inch oven-proof skillet and then layer the potatoes into the skillet, overlapping them in a decorative fashion. Salt and pepper each layer. When all the potatoes are layered, dot the top with a 1/2 cup of butter, and cover the pan with foil. Place over medium heat on the stove-top for 10 minutes, then transfer to the hot oven for 30 minutes. Slide a knife or spatula around the potatoes and carefully turn upside down and unmold onto a serving plate.

The top of the dish (the part that cooked against the bottom of the pan) will be golden and crisp; the rest of the potatoes will be tender and buttery. It's as if a French fry, cooked in butter, married some mashed potatoes, and had a family. Potatoes Anna would be their offspring.

My kids always love steak. Baby G focused on the meat, as usual. D, on the other hand, ate his half-wedge of potatoes and promptly asked for more. He ate almost a whole wedge, after that, and seemed quite delighted that it "looks like a pie!"

I know it isn't always a challenge to get kids to eat potatoes, and there's probably more butter in potatoes Anna than you normally need in a side dish. But it's still gratifying to watch my family enjoy a meal with such gusto.

Besides the flavour and texture of the potatoes, which I enjoy very much, I also enjoy how little attention I need to pay to them once the dish is assembled. Simple dishes like roasted or mashed potatoes require some care. You need to make sure the roasted potatoes aren't burning or sticking, and you need to stir them occasionally. Mashed potatoes require all the action right at the last minute, when everything else requires attention, too. Potatoes Anna, while slightly fussy to put together, can be completely ignored (indeed, they do better if you don't fuss over them) up until they are ready to be plated and served.

I roasted the Brussels sprouts alongside them, and had ample time to attend to the steaks on the grill, mix up my homemade Caesar dressing, and wash and prepare the lettuce. I have often found the salad not ready when everything else is, because I have too many other things (like mashing the potatoes) to do at the last minute. So I'm a fan of Pommes Anna. These pretty little potatoes will be trotted out for dinner parties in the near future.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Braised Goat—Popular with the Kids!

I didn't have high hopes for the meal where I turned goat shanks into a family supper. Having been ill all week, I didn't have the energy or appetite for anything too involved, and the meat was cut into very awkward chops, but were obviously more akin to shanks than 'chops'.

I found a simple lamb shank recipe in James Barber's Cooking for Two, which involved salting and peppering the meat, browning it, and then mixing together a 1/2 c. water with the juice of a lemon and a teaspoon of turmeric, pouring over the meat with a splash of olive oil, and simmering for a couple of hours. Turmeric has excellent anti-inflammatory properties, so I was tempted to try the recipe, even though it appeared it might be quite bland. 

After a couple of hours in the oven at 300F, the chops were falling off the bone, and I served them alongside brown basmati rice, steamed carrots, and sauteed zucchini and red pepper. Everything was quite delicious, and D, surprisingly, enthused, "I love everything on my plate!" Goat shanks in lemon and turmeric. Who knew?

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Busy Mom Tip #9: Coping Strategies When You're Laid Low

I apologize for going AWOL again this past week. I have been fighting a nasty and persistent infection in a lymph node that has effectively killed my energy, not to mention my appetite. I have been suffering the consequences of not grocery shopping, nor doing my usual meal planning, and have been making do with what's in the house, which luckily, is substantial. I've also had tons of time to re-explore ways to eat healthy food when you don't have the energy or inclination to cook...much.

We coped with meals in a variety of ways: we ordered spicy Vietnamese noodle soup from Mi Hong one night, and got to eat it quietly while both our children miraculously slept into the supper hour. D and G enjoyed their wonton soup and spring rolls when they woke up.

My husband covered for me on Saturday, and went old school, which in our house means, give in to the temptation to dump a can of cream of mushroom soup and canned mushrooms onto some ground beef, pour it on perogies, and call it dinner. Again, the kids loved it, and it had the taste of nostalgia for me, too.

Sunday I managed to pull off a roast chicken dinner. Very basic, but it was a very large chicken, so it served us well for lunches and on into the week.

Monday, my husband had to work a bit late, and because I had no energy, I did the bare minimum, which turned out to be quite popular with the boys: radiatore pasta tossed with home-canned tomatoes and a generous scoop of fresh butter. With a bit of seasoning (just salt and pepper), and a bit of heating so that the tomato juice warmed up and melded with the pasta and the pasta thickened the juices a bit. The resulting sauce was a silky, creamy tomato sauce with almost perfect umami balance. The kids went for seconds, as well as polishing off a large bowl of fresh vegetables, and luckily, my husband hadn't had a chance to eat the lunch he had packed, because between me and the kids, there was no pasta left. I did save him a taste, though. He didn't feel left out because he got to have roast chicken with potatoes, gravy, peas and corn.

In a moment of ambition on Monday, I had pulled out a package of goat meat from our freezer. I thought I had the energy to pull off some kind of meal with simple chops. The chops turned out to be weird leg cuts, and I drew a blank. I just couldn't bring myself to put the effort into it. Those chops are STILL in my fridge, and today's my last chance to do something with them. I'm going to attempt a simple braise with lemon and turmeric once I finish this post.

Tuesday, Valentine's Day, had the potential to be pretty pathetic. I booked another appointment with my doctor, for 4:45, and had no plan for dinner. While I was at the doctor, my husband took the boys shopping, and we had a quick meeting in the car about what was available to use. The conversation went something like this:
Me: "Well, we still have some roast chicken."
He: "Oh! Well, why don't we use that and do some kind of chicken on spaghetti thing?"
Me: "There's no spaghetti."
He: "Okay, I'll get some."
Me: "We also have some zucchini and red peppers, so you could use those. You should get mushrooms. Do you want some kind of sauce?"
He: "There's white wine!"
Me: "That could work. There's cream, too. You'll probably need some way to thicken it."
He: "And chicken gravy, too!!"
Me: "Ah, yes. That could work..."

And so our Valentine's dinner was born. We put some fettuccine on to boil, I chopped onions, garlic, mushrooms, peppers, zucchini and cooked chicken breast, and he started the saute. Half way through, he got distracted by some kid emergency, I worked on the seasoning and the sauce, cooking down the wine, adding in the cream and gravy and chicken, and then he came back in time to drain the pasta and toss it with oil.

I had a short moment to reflect that we don't really get to cook side by side like that very often, but it feels really good when it happens. A team effort. I was making a conscious effort not to micro-manage (I have that tendency in the kitchen), and we were both working toward the common goal of getting everyone fed before the kids went off the deep end with us in tow. It was a lovely reminder that we make a good team, and I can't imagine a better reminder on Valentine's Day.

Our dinner was one of those unrepeatable but delicious recipes, borne of what is in the fridge, but guaranteed by long tradition not to fail. I'd call it something like an Italian-inspired chicken a la king, with red peppers, green zucchini and white chicken covering all the Italian colours, and the combination of three delicious sauce ingredients—wine/cream/chicken gravy—was guaranteed to succeed. Kids loved it, and so did I.

Wednesday, my husband came home from work early, because he was now coming down with either a version of what I have, or something else. That chicken was still seeing us through—I made yet another batch of homemade chicken noodle soup from the carcass, completely basic, not terribly inspired, but always delicious, and always popular with the boys.

Lesson learned: even the worst of weeks can be made bearable with the help of one large chicken in its various incarnations. Now. Let's go deal with the goat...

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Product Placement #5: Red Espresso!

Since writing my foodie gift guide before Christmas for Planet S magazine, I have been enjoying a generous supply of Red Espresso, which I ordered once I found a Canadian supplier. It is not available yet in Saskatoon, but there is a coffee shop chain in Calgary, the Good Earth Cafe, with a location in Regina, that carries it retail.

My husband has recently stopped drinking coffee, but he still loves the idea of having a latte or capuccino. Enter Red Espresso, caffeine-free rooibos tea, ground finely enough to run through an espresso machine. The resulting brew is a rich, creamy shot of intensely flavoured tea that melds beautifully with steamed milk (or eggnog, as my husband discovered over the holidays).

I still drink coffee, but I have also been enjoying the Red Espresso as an after dinner drink. I usually only drink one or two cups of coffee in the morning, but there is something amazingly satisfying about having a latte after dinner. And the flavour of the Red Espresso certainly holds its own against a traditional coffee latte. Give it a try!

As an aside, if you have a coffee-grinder, you can also try grinding loose tea into a fine powder and running any kind of tea through your espresso machine. My husband tried it with Russian caravan black tea, with great success. You can buy it ready-made, or do it yourself—a bit more mess, but less money.