Monday, July 30, 2012

Three Summer Parties

The parties are over, and my recovery is mostly complete. I confess to spending last week and weekend cooking as little as possible, and sleeping as much as possible, to catch up as much as I can from three weeks of visitors, parties, and camping trips, all while suffering from a nasty summer cold which has made its rounds on the entire family. My kids are still coughing and sniffling. I thought I'd share my recipes and experiences from three very different, but all wonderful, summer events.

Party #1: Food Writers' Get-Together

I invited some local food writers, with whom I had taken a food writing workshop last year, to a get-together, which will hopefully become a regular occurrence. It's great fun to hang out with fellow foodie/wino peers and indulge in food talk and a bit of wine snobbery. Especially with this gang, who is particularly down-to-earth.

The party theme (I always have to have a theme) was 'matching your favourite wine to food/favourite food to wine' depending on your priorities. Since one of the attendees is a wine writer, his focus was obviously on the wine side.

The day was HOT and it had been hot for days prior. I ran in to said wine writer at the grocery store that day, and he said, "all I'm bringing is salsa and some chips. And wine, of course. It's too hot to eat!" The unmentioned fact is that it is not too hot to drink wine.

I had a few simple items planned, including fresh, homemade goat cheese on baguette, topped with radish leaf pesto (my new favourite recipe for turning garden waste into deliciousness—thanks, Chocolate and Zucchini!). I also prepared another canapĂ© topped with homemade chorizo sausage mixed with butter beans and basil, topped with yogurt, a recipe from Cook, Eat, Smile.

The other writers showed up with homemade deer sausage (delicious!) and a couple of homemade salsas. The wine writer showed up with a CASE of vinho verde and Lambrusco (for any true wine snobs out there, you'll laugh, since Lambrusco does not have a very respectable reputation), his recommendations for light, refreshing summer drinks. He was right. It was delicious, and went GREAT with sausage! We had a great time until the wine writer got too enthusiastic about playing with my kids and wiped out on the carpet while giving 50lb. D a piggy back ride. The party ended on that note, with a grown-up with a bloody nose (D was fine) and the rest of us shaking our heads and wondering how it had gotten to that point. Perhaps foolishly, we are already talking about the next event.

Party #2: Blessingway BBQ for 25

My sister-in-law is due to have her first baby on G's birthday in August. She asked if I would host her "Blessingway," a sort-of baby shower that has many spiritual aspects to it, and is intended to surround the mother with loving women and prepare her for childbirth and motherhood. It was a beautiful ceremony, and was followed by a bbq that included husbands and kids, as well as all the women that had attended the ceremony.

From the food perspective, I needed to prepare a meal that could mostly be made ahead of time, so that I wouldn't be distracted during the ceremony, and which could be set out the second we were done to accommodate the hungry kids coming back from the park. My menu worked perfectly, except for the fact that I second-guessed myself on food quantities late the night before, and had to pull out another package of meat from the freezer to make myself feel better. The quantities were just right before I pulled out that package, so we ended up with a few leftovers, but nothing too unreasonable. It was a good lesson in trusting my instincts. I truly have cooked enough to know the right amounts for 25 people. But I still live in terror of running out of food.

The menu, taken mostly from recipes on the internet, with an Asian theme, and nothing too spicy, as my sister-in-law's baby-infused tastebuds are very sensitive to things like onion and raw garlic:

Raw vegetables with Asian-inspired Dip (made ahead)
Szechuan Noodles and Shredded Vegetables  (designed to be made the night before)
Cold Chinese Rice Salad (cooked the day before and mixed that morning)
Grilled chicken, beef, moose and elk skewers, with various Asian marinades (marinated over night, skewered early in the afternoon)
Grilled baby bok choy with Asian marinade (my new favourite from a couple weeks ago)
Thai Iced Tea (using red tea from Thailand that my brother and sister-in-law brought back with them a few years ago)
Coconut milk and honey frozen pops (made the night before)

It all came together with a minimum of stress. A very satisfying experience!

Interlude: Ukrainian Braided Wedding Bread

Oh yes, and besides the parties, I was also trying to work out how to appropriately honour my grandparents' 65th wedding anniversary (65 years is a big deal!). I considered making 65 bread doves, which my grandma has made many times as table decorations for her grandchildren's weddings. My mom got the recipe and instructions from her, at which point I realized that I did not have time, nor enough sanity, in the three days remaining before their anniversary, to make them, 20 at a time, dry them in the oven overnight, then glaze them and paint eyes on them.

I opted instead to make them my version of a traditional Ukrainian wedding bread, which my grandma had made for our wedding. It had probably been 65 years since someone had done it for her, so it was time for a redux. I found a recipe on King Arthur Flour's website. The dough was wonderful to work with, and the resulting loaf, while a tiny bit lopsided (I made it in an 8" pan instead of a 9" pan, and used some of the extra dough to make doves for decoration, and then had some left over, which I added to the centre of the loaf, and it turned out to be too big for the pan) was still not bad for a first try. My dad took a picture, which I will try to scam from him to post here.

My granddaughterly duty done, I could then return to meal planning for the next big summer event.

Party #3: Wyld Womyn's Trail Ride Supper Duty

The weekend after the Blessingway was our annual wyld womyn's trail ride. My mom and I are usually in charge of suppers. We usually cook over the fire, or outside in some fashion. I wanted to try something a bit different this year, so I pitched the idea of making southern fried chicken in the turkey fryer. It's something I've wanted to do for a while, and this seemed like a good opportunity, especially because my dad has the fryer basket required to make the job easier, a piece of equipment I have yet to purchase.

Night #1:
Lynn Crawford's Southern Fried Chicken (this calls for a bbq spice rub as part of the spicing. I used this recipe)
Mom's homemade potato salad and coleslaw
Fresh fruit (eventually...first, we went for a ride to burn off the chicken)

I can happily report that the effort of marinating, breading and frying chicken, while messy and a bit hot  when done outdoors in 30-degree temperatures, is well worth it. The results were fantastic. I am now hunting in earnest for a basket for my own fryer, so I can do it again at home.

Night #2:
Greek Night!
Beef souvlaki kebabs, cooked over the fire
Lemon rice (we cheated for this and plugged in a rice cooker in our camper, which was hooked up to power)
Greek salad
Baklava (from the RecipeSource website, an amazing resource for all kinds of ethnic dishes. Check it out when you have a chance!)

Our beef was a little tough, in spite of marinating overnight, but everyone still raved about the food. The baklava was especially popular. I forgot that I had also picked up some Lebanese candied fruits from a new shop in Saskatoon, and we never even got around to eating them.

Night #3 is the night when husbands, kids, friends and other family is invited, and we have a big wiener roast. Great fun for everyone.

So after the past few weeks, while I enjoyed every minute of it while it was happening, you might be able to imagine why I laid low this past week, cooking minimally. We still ate well though, thanks to some thawed pizza dough that covered us for two meals. More on that in an upcoming post!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Two Approaches to Hot Weather Cooking: Beat It, or Join It

My family enjoyed two very different meals this week, as the temperature and humidex hovered in the 30s (or 90s, if you do Fahrenheit). As I've already mentioned, my gas range throws a lot of heat, and my newly opened-up great room, while great for entertaining, does little to contain the heat in the kitchen.

I was looking for ways to keep the house cool, while also using what I have in the fridge and freezer. Here are two very different kinds of hot weather meals, both delicious:

Beat the Heat: Cool, Light Meals

I have used Bobby Flay's Vietnamese Rice Noodle Salad recipe for years. I have used it for catering as well as at home, and I make it at least once every summer. It makes a huge amount, though—which is okay, since you'll enjoy eating it in the days to come. I just made a big old bowl of this (I had already made the dressing when I decided to use half the noodles required. I upped the veggie content too, adding an extra carrot and some bean sprouts. Even with half the noodles it's quite a large quantity, and the amount of dressing was not overpowering).

When the heat is getting to you and you don't feel like cooking or eating, this is a good option. Fresh, light, nutritious, tangy, salty, and crunchy. And the kids always love noodles.

Join the Heat: Sweat!

I found a beef shoulder roast in my freezer, and there is more beef on the way this weekend, so it needs to be used. What the heck do you do with a cut of meat that is best braised when the heat is sweltering? I found an amazingly simple recipe for slow cooker Pot Roast with BBQ Beans and decided to give it a try. The slow cooker is a perfect hot weather cooking implement, giving off virtually no heat. I don't always love slow cooker recipes, because they can turn out a little mushy and bland. This one was neither.

When I had decided on BBQ beef and beans, I realized the other part of that meal had to be cornbread. How does one make cornbread without turning on the oven? In a Pampered Chef stoneware baker, on indirect heat on the grill. [Disclaimer: I have since learned that Pampered Chef's warranty for stoneware is null and void if it is used on the grill or BBQ. If it breaks in the process, you may be left high and dry. The trick, however, is indirect heat. My baker is still perfectly sound, and I have broken stoneware bakers in my oven by using them incorrectly. I am therefore well-versed in what they can stand and what they can't, and indirect heat on the BBQ seems just fine]. I used King Arthur Flour's whole grain cornbread recipe, blogged about here by Slow Like Honey.

I finished off the menu with a simple salad gathered from my garden, mostly cress and radish leaves, but some mesclun, too. I had to replant the mesclun after covering the garden with screen to keep the birds off. It's doing better now, but the lettuce supply is pretty low.

The result? A hearty, delicious, protein-filled meal that almost immediately got me sweating. But there's nothing wrong with a little sweat, and I ate heartily, thinking, this is the kind of food that they eat regularly, in places where it's this hot out—and hotter—for months on end. They must know what they're doing!

Maybe here in the north, we have the best of both worlds. We can enjoy those hot weather foods, like steamy soups, curries and heavy braised meats, all year round. They are amazingly comforting in the dead of winter, because they warm your belly and make you feel nourished and safe tucked indoors out of the cold. But cultures steeped in hot temperatures, like India, Vietnam, the Deep South, evolved those recipes to help survive the heat. Sweating is good, and with a good dose of chile heat in the hot sun, you'll sweat like you didn't know you could.

You could beat the heat, or join it. I recommend doing a little of both.

Unexpected Guests: Thank Goodness for Eggs

Over the weekend I wasn't planning to cook much because we were going to a wedding, and my sister and her family had to delay their arrival by a day. I figured I could take it easy, and use up a few of the leftovers in my fridge.

It didn't quite work out that way. My sister and her husband drove straight through the night, arriving at my house at 5:30 am on Saturday. I fed them toast for breakfast, and a LOT of coffee, as they straggled up the stairs at 9 am with their 9 month old baby in tow.

Lunch rolled around, and I threw all the leftovers from our Vietnamese summer roll feast (Chinese sausage, bean sprouts, shrimp, basil) into egg foo young. I used this recipe as a guide, but then just used what I had on hand, including homemade beef stock rather than chicken stock. I found a recipe for egg foo young sauce that called for beef stock—you add oyster sauce and soy sauce and then thicken. Not the perfect flavour match, but the kids went crazy with the sauce on their rice.

The next morning, my parents brought over muffins and fruit and the whole family (brother, sister, S.O.s and children) were all there. Everyone except my parents was still there at lunch, and I started wondering what to serve, since our kids were going to get hungry again. I realized I had everything I needed to make roasted tomato clafoutis, like a giant, savoury pancake. I mixed in cherry tomatoes from the Farmers' market, leftover goat cheese and lentil caviar from my book club meeting, and some more basil, stuck it in the oven, cooked some breakfast sausage from my freezer, and there was lunch. I used this recipe, and then adapted it to what I had, and prepared it right in a frying pan that could transfer to the oven.

All I can say is that I'm glad to have a few dozen eggs in the fridge at any given moment. With no microwave on the premises to thaw out food from the freezer, impromptu lunches would otherwise be a challenge.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Two Summer Party Menus

Two parties in two days, and wedding tomorrow! That's my kind of pace (truly! Okay, well at least I can handle it for about three days and then I'll need a rest for one day before diving in again).

Last night, I hosted the Sturgeon Ladies' Literary Society (that's a fancy way of saying my neighbourhood bookclub) meeting. We always put on a bit of a spread, although it's after dinner, so not a huge meal. I relied heavily on Mark Bittman's Food Matters cookbook (if I haven't convinced anyone to buy it yet, then you must not be paying attention. There are 500 recipes, so even though I use it all the time, I have barely even scratched the surface! And there are many more recipes I want to try) for this summer-themed menu. Everything was light and delicious (except for the quinoa cake, which was delicious, but not-so-light) and gluten free.

Party #1 Menu: After Dinner Summer Snack Buffet for the Bookclub

Radishes with Olive Oil and Sea Salt (that simple. Just serve radishes next to a small dish of olive oil and coarse sea salt. Barely a recipe, but I got the idea from Mark Bittman's book)
Quick-Pickled Watermelon with Feta (I'm new to pickling melon, but I definitely liked the results)
Lentil "Caviar" with All the Trimmings (recipe below)
Olives, Cucumbers and Tuna, Mediterranean Style (just a toss of olives, cucumbers, tuna, lemon juice and zest, olive oil, garlic, parsley and chile flakes)
Homemade goat cheese with herbs de Provence
Assorted crackers
Fresh strawberries and watermelon
Quinoa chocolate mini-cupcakes, inspired by the chocolate cake recipe in Quinoa 365

I was feeling kind of ambivalent about the lentil caviar when I made it the day before. It just didn't seem to be all that interesting. But it was the thing that the ladies liked best (except for maybe the cupcakes). They asked for the recipe so they could make it themselves.

Here it is:

Lentil "Caviar" with All the Trimmings

8 oz. (about 1 1/2 cups) Le Puy or other dark green or black lentils (I used beluga lentils from Hestia Organics at the Farmers' Market)
2 T. vegetable oil
1 large shallot or small onion
1/4 c. dried dulse, arame, or hijiki
1 c. sake, brewed green tea or water (I used jasmine tea)
2 T. mirin or honey (I used mirin)
Salt and pepper
8 slices whole grain bread or crackers for serving
1/2 c. capers or chopped cornichons, for garnish, optional
1/2 c. chopped red onion, for garnish, optional
2 hard boiled eggs, chopped, for garnish, optional
1/2 c. mayonnaise, sour cream, or creme fraiche for garnish, optional (I used sour cream)

Put lentils in a pot and cover with cold water by 2-3 inches. Bring the water to a boil, then reduce heat so that the lentils bubble gently. Partially cover and cok, stirring occasionally, checking hte lentils for doneness every 10-15 minutes. When the lentils are tender but not falling apart, drain them.

Put the oil in a deep skillet over medium high heat. When it's hot, add the shallot and sea greens and cook, stirring constantly, 3-5 minutes. Stir in the sake and miring. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and let the mixture bubble away until it reduces and thickens to a thin syrup, 5-7 minutes. Strain.

Pour the glaze over the lentils and toss gently to coat; taste and adjust seasoning. Chill for at least 30 minutes or up to a few days (I chilled overnight). Toast the breatd if you're using and cut each slice diagonally into 4 toast points. Serve with the toast points or crackers, along with any garnishes you like.

Party #2 Menu: Impromptu Vietnamese Fresh Roll Feast, or, What Would I Do Without the Internet?

The next party had a bit of a roundabout development. Earlier in the week I stopped at the Saskatoon Asian Market to get seaweed to make the lentil caviar. I couldn't just buy the one thing, and had to wander around to see what else they had of interest. What else they had was beautifully fresh bean sprouts, the cutest little mini baby bok choy, some Chinese sausage, which I bought without knowing what I was going to do with it, and a couple kinds of noodles.

When I got home, I started planning what to make with my ingredients, and thought to myself, it's hot out, and I have some greens in the garden...maybe I should make salad rolls. I wonder if there are Vietnamese salad rolls that call for Chinese sausage? Well, if you Google "Vietnamese salad roll Chinese Sausage", you will find that the answer is yes! How easy is that, and how often do I have two seemingly unrelated ingredients that I Google to come up with an amazing concoction? Almost daily. If you can conceive the combination, chances are someone else has, too, has blogged about it, and the recipe is ready and waiting.

So here is my impromptu Vietnamese Fresh Roll Feast menu, which we enjoyed with good long-time friends and their daughter. The kids mostly ate the sausage, but generally seemed to enjoy the rolls, too. Hey, this menu is almost gluten-free, too...the sausage might be questionable...

Pre-dinner cocktail (served alongside leftover lentil caviar and goat cheese on crackers): Plum wine tonic (1 part plum wine, 2 parts tonic water, and a squeeze of lime over ice)

Our friends brought a bottle of Cava, sparkling Spanish wine, which I would match with anything and drink every day if I could. Delicious!

Boa Bia, Chinese Sausage Spring Rolls with Peanut Sauce (thanks to The Ravenous Couple for the recipe)
Mark Bittman's Summer Rolls with Peanut Sauce (I skipped the sauce and just used the ingredient list as a guideline: lettuce, cilantro, basil, julienne cucumber, bean sprouts, shrimp)
Grilled baby bok choy with Asian marinade, inspired by Dad Cooks Dinner (this was a sleeper hit. They were a little bitter, a little sour, smoky, savoury, just a bit crunchy, and totally delicious. My baby bok choy were really tiny, so I didn't bother cutting them in half, just tossed them in the marinade and 'stir-fried' them in a grill basket).
Quinoa cupcake ice cream sandwiches (and the last of the Taylor Fladgate 20 year old tawny that I was keeping in the fridge)

I am replete. Tomorrow I take a break from cooking (except for making breakfast from the leftovers of Chinese sausage, dried shrimp, basil, carrots, and bean sprouts. Can you say "egg foo young"?) and attending my cousin's wedding. Then I'll be cooking something for my sister and her family who will be staying with us after the wedding, and thinking ahead to Tuesday when I host some local food writers for a little get-together.

I love summer entertaining. Who am I kidding? I love entertaining, period.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

New Stew

I know, I should be writing posts about summer inspirations. It's the 4th of July, after all! But every once in a while, something unseasonal comes up, which is nonetheless important.

I intended to cook moose steak tonight, but when I thawed the unmarked package of moose meat, a gift from a friend, I discovered not steak, but stew. What was I supposed to do with stew meat in July? I just wrote about my issues with the gas range heating up the house, after all. I decided I'd make a stew that I could do on the BBQ.

Well, that didn't pan out. We've been getting weird weather these days, and today was windy, with gusts blowing hard enough to put out the side burner on the BBQ. It was relatively cool, though, hovering around 20 degrees Celsius, so I decided to just make the stew on my stovetop with the windows and screen doors wide open.

I found a recipe online that called for fresh herbs and wine. I followed the recipe, more or less. I didn't use Partridgeberry wine, but rather some open bottles of red that had been open for too long to drink, but that I couldn't bear to dump.

I snipped fresh oregano, rosemary and thyme from my garden and added them, along with a bay leaf, a teaspoon or more of salt and a generous glug (a cup or more) of wine to the meat. Instead of marinating overnight, I just marinated at room temperature for a few hours, since that was all the time I had.

I browned the meat in lard, without dusting in flour, because the recipe didn't call for that, and I find that step messy and annoying at the best of times. I then added a pinch of paprika, a chopped onion and two carrots. After stirring a bit, I added in the marinade liquid and some of my thawed homemade beef stock. That simmered for a couple of hours, and then I threw in another onion and some halved baby potatoes.

Then came the revelation. Instead of making a slurry out of water and flour to thicken (to make up for not flouring the meat before browning), the recipe called for mixing equal parts flour and butter, and stirring that in at the last minute. I am familiar with adding butter to pasta sauces and wine reductions, but have never yet added it to a stew at the end of cooking.

I will always do it from now on.

What a difference it made! The gravy was smooth and velvety, a pleasing colour and silky texture. It looked...French, somehow. Not rustic, but gourmet!

I have never been a fan of stews. They fall into the same category as chile and lasagne—they're always so-so, never amazing, and if I never make one, I can always guarantee that I'll get my fill somewhere along the way, since they are the things that people always make for guests. Stew, like chile and lasagne, is also one of my husband's favourite comfort foods, so he is always starved for them.

We may have discovered a happy medium here—I now have a method for cooking stew with results that stop me in my tracks. My husband may have a few more stews in his future.

I should also mention the kids' response. D and G tend to eschew stew, pushing it around on their plates and filling up on bread. Baby G ate the entire bowl, lifted it to his lips to drink the last of the gravy, and then asked for more. D dipped his bread in the sauce, ate several bites, and then came back to it later and finished it off. D's enthusiastic praise: "Thanks, Mom, for making such a great feast!" and baby G chimed in, "Tootoo [thank you], Mama!" We have a winner.

I have another package of moose stew meat in the freezer. I don't think I'll be doing a single thing to try to improve on the recipe. And I'll be thickening every stew I make with the butter and flour mixture. They will be better for it.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Must-Have (For Me) Summer Cooking Tools

On sweltering hot days when my poor, ancient air-conditioner can't keep up, and my husband is hounding me to close the blinds, curtains and windows to keep the sun and hot air out, it pains me a little to fire up my gas range. I usually adore it, but in the middle of summer, it becomes uncomfortably obvious how much heat the thing gives off.

Bring on the BBQ (and by BBQ, I mean the Canadian version, not the BBQ of the deep south, nor whatever Australians consider BBQ. I only know that my version and the Australian version differ somehow). My gas grill has to have a burner on the side on which I can steam veggies, cook beans from scratch, or fry fish in the relative comfort of the outdoors, thus preventing my house from overheating any more than it already is.

I've also discovered a new way to use the gas grill as an oven, without burning the things I am trying to roast: my Lodge Logic Cast Iron Reversible Grill/Griddle is heavy enough to handle the heat and makes perfect roasted vegetables every time. Halved new baby potatoes are my family's new favourite thing, and with the griddle on the back half of the BBQ, I still have room to grill burgers and steaks up front, or even do a roast on indirect heat by leaving one of the burners off.

Today I made another version of chickpea and carrot soup from scratch, even with the humidex up high, thanks to the side burner that simmered the beans all morning. Coming up: grilled pizzas to use up ingredients that went into bush pies and Denver sandwiches during our long weekend camping adventure. Soup and pizza, without turning on the range or the oven. My kind of summer cooking.