Wednesday, December 30, 2009

After the holidays...

You know what I love about cooking? You can never out cook yourself, and you will never ever run out of new things to learn or taste. Food can bring back memories, evoke new ones, bring comfort or excitement. You can learn about a culture by the meals they enjoy, and can make new friendships that surpass any language or religious barrier solely by exchanging your passion. I love that my 'hobby' is a life necessity, and so even though it often feels like luxury to savor a bite of a perfectly roasted chicken or a carefully hand dipped chocolate, I need to eat each and every day and that will never end. I can make it as exciting or as boring as I want to. I can nourish my body and my soul at the same time. I can bond with friends, share some of myself with them and make someone feel super special. The best thing of all, is that simple but good quality ingredients pretty much carry themselves, so even if my skill is not that of a top chef, I can let the food sing on it's on and it won't let me down.
Speaking of simple food, it is something I look forward to after a week of feasting on roasts and turkey and perhaps a little too many sweets. So last night I cracked open a box of frozen spinach, sauteed it and added a Bechamel sauce. This is then scooped over perfectly cooked spaghetti and topped with a soft sunny egg, which when cut into oozes it's yellow into the spinach and creates a creamy sensation.

Sunny Side Two Cheese Spinach Spaghetti

Serves 4

Spaghetti, about 4oog
1 tbsp plus 1/4 cup butter
1/2 small onion, finely minced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 box frozen chopped spinach, thawed (I pop it into the microwave for a couple of minutes, then squeeze excess water out - don't worry about getting all of it, sauteing will take care of the rest)
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tbsp dried basil (or 1/4 cup fresh, chopped, if you have some on hand)
pinch nutmeg
1/4 tsp white pepper
1/4 cup flour
1 1/2 - 2 cups milk
1/4 cup finely shredded hard cheese, like Parmesan or Romano
1/4 cup plain cream cheese
salt and pepper
4 eggs

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook pasta for four people. Drain, rinse and set aside.
On low heat, melt 1 tbsp butter in a large saute pan and add the onion. Gently saute without allowing it to brown, 2 - 3 minutes. Add garlic, saute another minute.
Turn heat to med-high, add spinach and 1/2 tsp salt. Cook, stirring often, until evenly wilted and most of the moisture has evaporated, about 5 minutes.
Add basil, nutmeg and white pepper.
Stir in flour, incorporate completely.
Slowly add milk, a little at a time, stirring constantly, adding enough to achieve a creamy consistency.
Remove pan from heat. Stir in hard and cream cheeses, until melted.
Adjust seasonings with salt and pepper.
In a separate saute pan, on med-high heat, cook eggs in a little hot oil for a couple of minutes, until whites are solid but yolks are still runny. I lightly salt my eggs as they cook to bring out just a little more flavor.
To serve, swirl some spaghetti on a plate, top with a scoop of creamed spinach and the egg.

And next time someone asks you what you make when you need something quick, don't say frozen pizza, say Two Cheese Spinach Pasta!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Input, anyone?

Spring cleaning always comes early at my home, perhaps I should rename it "spring" mad organizing, because I turn into a Nester in which everything needs a home and should remain there, for at least a little while! (I won't even begin to tell you how it was when I was 9 months pregnant one January a few years ago...) Allow me to take you on a little tour on the before and after of my kitchen. Well, it's more of a before and in-between because I am dreaming of finally finishing this much used and loved space.


Notice the small space to the left of the stove - this is where all the magic happens, and yes, it is just shy of two feet in length. Now I can totally manage with this, if anything, I clean and put away dishes much more efficiently than ever before. I do have a nicely sized glass table but unfortunately it is not a comfortable source for a 5 ft (almost) 11 lady to chop her veggies, and so I very much am wishing for a kitchen island, see below. I have also been debating whether or not to paint the walls, and if so, what color to paint them with. I adore green, and love the shade in my kitchen. However I am not crazy about what it does for, or doesn't do for, my kitchen cabinets. I would like them to blend into the wall a little more, and so eliminate the cabinet, bulk head and ceiling contrast. Any opinion would by highly valued; should it be the same brown-grey of my dining and living room, or a shade lighter? The other option would be a much lighter color, more of a linen. I think this would brighten up the kitchen quite a bit, but I wonder how it would do with the cabinets and the transition to the dining room. On a side note, I have a glass table with four chairs in great condition for sale...!
For the walls I am thinking of mounting two open shelves to replace the art wall which could bring a little more sophistication, and then a series of dark frames with photography instead of the painting (for which I have a great new spot in the house) on the opposite wall.
And lastly, depending on how comfortable I feel to beg for just one more thing to happen in my kitchen (aside from maybe just maybe two low back bar stools), I would like to tile the back splash: natural stone 3 x 3 tiles or small glass or ceramic tiles - either way I would go with colors similar to the counter top.

In the end the question I need to ask myself is this: do these changes accomplish something I only want, or would it truly make a difference in my everyday life?! I tend to go with both, which doesn't make the decision process any easier!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Exciting drop biscuit update!

It's been a truly wonderful Christmas this year, as it is every year, but this one just felt a little *extra* special. I have to brag and say that our dinner was stunning - Beef Tenderloin, stuffed Mushrooms, Asiago Risotto, Caesar Salad and the biscuits you see above. I wanted to relieve my mother in law of all the work that goes into a traditional turkey dinner, and allow her to sit back and enjoy the festivities. This also gave me the chance to change things up a little, as I tend to do, and I decided on a festive, but definitely not traditional meal. Originally, I meant to make a puff pastry type bread stick, to replace the dinner roll, but I was a little over ambitious and so decided to fall back on a trusty staple - my drop biscuit recipe. I did, however, use the filling for the puff pastry recipe in the biscuits. Where I would normally go for a sharp cheese and herb I instead turned them into Sundried Tomato and Basil Biscuits. Now for anyone who loves sundried tomatoes as much as I do, I just know this is as exciting to you as it was to me. Sun soaked tomatoes baked right into a fluffy biscuit and hit with some basil is a simple pleasure I will forever enjoy.

Here's the basic biscuit recipe:

Drop Biscuits
Makes 12 biscuits

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tbsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 cup butter, softened
1 cup milk

Preheat oven to 450 F (230 C). Prepare pizza stone or baking sheet.
In a bowl, combine flour, baking powder and salt. Cut in the butter. Add the milk and flavourings and mix only until the dry mixture has been absorbed.
Drop by heaping spoonfuls (12 even portions) onto a pizza stone.
Bake for 12 - 1 5 minutes, until golden brown

For the Sundried Tomato and Basil version you need:

1 small garlic clove, peeled
6 oil packed sundried tomatoes, drained
1/2 cup coarsely chopped fresh basil (or if you are whipping these up spur of the moment, and aren't well stocked with fresh herbs, use 1 tsp dried basil)
1 tbsp olive oil
1/2 tsp kosher salt
optional - 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan, which the biscuits in the photo do not have, as there was plenty of cheese in the meal already, but I am pretty sure it would be a beautiful addition

Puree garlic clove in food processor, then add sundried tomatoes, basil, oil and salt. Sitr into biscuit dough.
Fold in the cheese, if using.
Bake as in basic biscuit directions.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

My very own Lasagna

Okay folks, here it is... a recipe I made 100% from scratch and without any inspiration from any source, using some of the knowledge of food I have gained over the last few months. I do cook without a recipe quite often, but this one is worth publishing, I think, even though perhaps it is nothing spectacular and I am sure that somewhere out there, someone has made this probably much better than I. I did, however, get the stamp of approval from my family on this one, and I am pretty sure we will be making this a staple.
What I have made is what I call a Bacon Chili Bean Lasagna. It feeds 6 - 8 for under $10 and pairs quite nicely with either a Caesar Salad, or torn leaf lettuce with Balsamic Vinaigrette. This Lasagna is not like some other Mexican inspired tortilla shell casseroles, but takes on more of a southern flavour, one of home made refried beans with a variety of textures and flavours that do not get lost in putting it all together. Sweet corn contradicts salty bacon, chewy cheese balances the starchy beans, fresh parsley cuts the heat of the chili. All this in a fresh tomato base. I am happy with the result.

Bacon Chili Bean Lasagna
Serves 6 - 8

8 slices Bacon, small dice
1 medium or two small Onions, small dice
2 Carrots, medium dice
1 Celery stalk, medium dice
2 cloves Garlic, crushed
3 tbsp Tomato Paste
3 medium ripe Tomatoes, medium dice (skin on)
1 cup Tomato Puree
1 - 2 tbsp Chili Powder, according to personal taste
1/2 chicken bouillon cube
1/2 - 1 tsp Salt, according to taste
1/2 tsp Black Pepper
1 tsp dried Oregano
1 can Black Beans, 540mL, drained
1 can Red Kidney Beans, 540mL, drained
1 cup frozen Peaches and Cream Corn Kernels
9 Lasagna Noodles
1 cup shredded Marble Cheddar Cheese
about 1/4 cup roughly chopped flat leaf Parsley

Saute bacon in a large saute pan over high heat until crisp. Remove bacon, lower heat to med-low. Add onions, carrots and celery, sweat in the bacon fat without browning until soft.
Add tomatoes, tomato paste and tomato puree, plus a pinch of salt to release water in the tomatoes, garlic, chili powder, bouillon cube, oregano and black pepper.
Simmer on med-low until it has been reduced to puree consistency, about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Meanwhile, cook lasagna noodles according to package directions. (Do not use no cook noodles.)
Preheat oven to 375F.
Use a potato masher to gently smash beans. You want to release the starch, but avoid loosing all shape and form of the beans.
Add the reserved bacon and the corn (no need to cook it). Heat to warm throughout. Adjust seasoning to taste with salt, pepper and chili powder.
Place about 1/4 of the bean mixture on the bottom of a 9 x 13 inch baking pan. Top with three noodles, then layer: 1/4 of the bean mixture, 1/2 of the cheese, 3 noodles, 1/4 bean mixture, 3 noodles and the remaining bean mixture.
Cover the baking pan with tin foil.
Bake in the preheated oven for 20 minutes.
Remove the foil, sprinkle with remaining 1/2 cup cheese and parsley. Bake for another 5 minutes, or until cheese is melted.
Allow to rest for 10 minutes before serving.

We love to bake them, we love to eat them.

Christmas is not only about the birth of Jesus, good food with company and presents galore, but also about creating family traditions. I am the first to admit I like things a little different and freshened up every year, but there are some little tidbits that I love to do every year, and I added a new one just today. I had these cookies in mind last year, but it was Christmas Day when I thought of them, a little too late for making it out to the grocery store. Instead I made a note in my day timer, for Christmas 2009. Here they are, Candy Cane Chocolate Chunk Cookies!

Chewy Candy Cane Chocolate Chunk Cookies
Makes 3 - 5 dozen, depending on how big you like your Christmas cookies... I usually end up with about 3

2/3 cup melted Butter
2 cups lightly packed Brown Sugar
2 eggs
2 tbsp Hot Water
2 2/3 cups Flour
1 tsp Baking Powder
1 tsp Baking Soda
1/2 tsp Salt
300g large chocolate chips or baking chocolate, chopped into chunks
1/2 cup crushed Candy Canes (another great opportunity to give food a good beating)

Beat butter, brown sugar, eggs and hot water together.
Sift flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.
Add to butter mixture.
Stir in chocolate and candy canes
Drop by tbsp fulls onto parchment paper lined cookie trays.
Bake at 374F/190C for 8 to 10 minutes. (Take cookies out when just the centers look slightly undercooked, they will firm up as they cool off, and will remain chewy)

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Motor that drives me.

For some reason, on some days, I forget what it is I am doing on this culinary journey. There is no diploma awaiting me in June, and I am pretty sure I don't want to work the line in a restaurant. But then I remember - I don't just want to cook great food, but I also want to know why it is great and how it got to be great. Not only do I want great flavour, but I want depth of flavour. I love living simply, but food should be complex! I don't want to be bound to recipes and formulas, but instead understand what I am working with and create my own signature meals. I want to achieve excellence, even if it's just for me and my family to enjoy. I want to rock the budget I have and make a stunning weekly menu. I want to be healthy now and also in my 50's - which are the years, if you ask me, when we should be out travelling the world, not stuck in doctor's offices. (You'll probably find me in Tuscany or somewhere in France, checking out the local culture through the food they eat.) And, tucked away somewhere amongst the many other things I would like to do, is a desire to get North American kids growing up on more than just hot dogs and Kraft Dinner. How? When? Who knows... but I think this could very well be my "getting there", when I "arrive" at where I am supposed to be. Not that we ever truly arrive, since tomorrow always lurks around the corner, and to do lists and dreams never go away (and nor should they).
This week I have learned what braising does to a chicken, especially with the bone left in. It is magnificently moist and flavourful. Basically, braising is roasting with liquids in the pan. I made Chicken Fricassee, from a whole chicken split nicely into 8 parts, lightly seared, topped with chicken stock and some other fine ingredients including a sachet of celery, bay leaf and parsley stems - there's plenty of flavour in those stems! - and gently roasted on a low temperature until the meat fell off the bones. Then comes the best part; the depth and layers of flavour in the broth extracted from the chicken and the bones during cooking is reduced and thickened. It's in these simple sauces where we often get the most wow. It is the component in a meal that pulls it all together, in this case, the chicken with the homemade Spaetzle and simple green beans. I'd have to say, these kind of meals are my kids' favourite, even if the older one to my horror asked for ketchup (I did not give in to her, and she did not miss it.) This week I am also going to attempt my first sour dough starter, and make clam chowder from scratch. I am very much looking forward to Christmas Dinner in just a few days... 86 the turkey, and make room for Beef Tenderloin and some tasty, very un-Christmassy sides. Change is good!

Here's what's on the menu at my home:

Soup and Salad
New England Clam Chowder
Fresh and crunchy Carrot Salad

Chicken Fricassee
over Spaetzle and blanched green Beans

Ratatouille (since every home should serve this at least once!)
over Rice Pilaf

Southwestern Grilled Salmon Sandwiches
with Three Bean Salad

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Please DO try this at home.

Pecan Tassies
Makes 4 dozen

250g pkg. Cream Cheese, softened
1/2 cup Butter, softened
1 1/2 cups Flour
1 Egg
1/2 cup Brown Sugar
1 Tbsp Butter, melted
1 tsp real Vanilla Extract
115g plus 60g good quality Semi Sweet Chocolate Chips (I recommend Ghiradelli, as was recommended to me)
1 cup roughly chopped Pecans, divided

Grease mini muffin pans.
Beat together cream cheese and butter until well combined. Stir in flour. Gather the dough into a ball, adding more flour if overly sticky. Divide into 48 balls (about 3/4 inch thick) and place one into each muffin tin. Press onto sides and bottoms, about 3/4 of the way up on the sides, then chill while preparing the filling. If you do not have enough muffin tins to bake all 4 dozen at one time, chill the remaining dough balls while baking the first batch.
Whisk together egg, sugar, 1 tbsp melted butter and vanilla until well blended. (Stir several times while filling the pastry as the sugar can settle to the bottom.)
Place one chocolate chip and 1 tsp (or a 1/4 piece of a pecan, as I did) pecans in the bottom of each shell. Spoon the egg mixture evenly over top (about 3/4 of the way to the edge of the pastry shell). Sprinkle with remaining pecans.
Bake at 350 F, 25 - 30 minutes. Cool in the pan placed on a wire rack for 30 minutes. Pop Tassies out using the edge of a teaspoon. Drizzle with melted chocolate on top. Chill.

Christmas Baking

Taking risks can be a lot of fun, it adds that certain zest - or should we call it spice - to life. Sometimes we fail, but more often than not, we find ourselves with a new skill, a new hobby, maybe even a new home or job. When cooking for others, however, we apparently must never ever take these risks, we should only serve what we know best, and at least taste as we prepare in order to know what is ending up in our guests mouths. But, in the spirit of learning, I decided to bake a cookie for my Christmas Cookie Exchange Party which I have never tried before, nor had I heard of them, but reading through the ingredients and instructions, I found a few new skills I so desired to put under my belt. So I selfishly decided to allow not only my family but now also my friends to be my lab rats. And now I can say I have made a sort of a pastry dough, with a filling to boot and I have successfully melted chocolate on a double boiler. Never mind smashing a baggy of pecan halves with my rolling pin, to acquire roughly chopped pecan bits. That, my friends, is something we should all do.
I needed 8 dozen cookies for the party. My mini muffin pan holds two dozen each, and one recipe makes 2 muffin trays exactly. Which means, if I wanted to taste these little gems, I would have had to make up yet another batch of Tassies. But time was running out and I still had Biscotti to whip up to enjoy with coffee... So I took that risk, and divided my contribution to the party into 8 zip tie bags, without knowing what I was giving away. On a side note, I found out with much embarrassment that cookies for an exchange party should be presented in pretty wrapping?! Next year, ladies, next year - watch out!
It turns out Pecan Tassies are quite enjoyable, they are not overly sweet which my European palette appreciates, and I love how pretty they look beside an assortment of other treats (even without pretty wrapping).

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Blueberry Muffins

Ever crave a muffin that has a proper crusty top like a coffee shop muffin, but with the romance of homemade? These muffins are a favourite in our home. The best thing about them is you can turn them into just about anything you have on hand, by replacing the blueberries with chocolate chips, raspberries, or even apples with cinnamon and perhaps a streusel on top. I have, at times, made a few different varieties of muffins with one tray and one batch divided into thirds. Using real vanilla extract does wonders, in my opinion, too. As I make new dishes every day of the week, it can be nice to have a staple to come back to now and again.
I have yet to prove this to myself, but apparently muffins, souffles and the like rise better without papers lining the trays, as they can cling to the butter on the tins and so have a better hold to climb to the top. However, it's the look and convenience of the muffin papers that keeps me going back to them.
Blueberry Muffins
Makes 12 Muffins
3 cups flour
3 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
6 tbsp butter
1 1/4 cups sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 cup milk
1 3/4 cup fresh or frozen blueberries
Butter or line muffin tins, set aside.
Heat oven to 375 F.
Combine flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside.
In a large bowl, cream butter with sugar with an electric mixer, on medium speed, until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add eggs and vanilla, mix until well combined. Reduce speed to low, alternate adding flour mixture and milk to mixer, beginning and ending with flour. Gently fold in blueberries with a spoon. (When using frozen berries, leave these in the freezer right until mixing in, or the juices will begin to come out and throw off the muffin batter.)
Divide among muffin tins, sprinkle generously with sugar, if desired.
Bake until light golden, about 30 minutes.
Cool in pan for 15 minutes, then transfer to a cooling rack.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Feelin funky...

So I have been feeling a little out of step lately, I am not sure if it's distraction or just the busy-ness of life before Christmas, but I actually feel a knot in my stomach from not writing much lately. I don't have a cute story today, or a new fact, neither have I learnt anything new as of late. But I just need to write! It feels good to be here, which is a funny thing to me since I can be quite bad at talking - I often feel as though I stumble over my words more than I ever make much sense. By which then my head feels clogged with words that need to get out... right now I feel a bit dizzy with thoughts!
As the year comes to a close, I seem to scramble at finishing projects that are long over due and I have this overwhelming drive to organize, purge and discover something new to take me into the next year. So yes, you could say I am distracted. By my house. It's 90% done, and whether it's money or time, I can't quite figure it out, but those last 10% just seem to linger on and on. It hasn't bothered me much in the last year or so, but since the beginning of this month, I just can't stand the sight of unfinished floors, bathroom walls that need fixing, the lack of curtains, and moss green trim around two doors downstairs. I think I must have inspired myself to learn by doing with last weeks post, and so instead of waiting for stuff to get done, I am going to figure out how to do it myself. Don't get me wrong here, my dear husband is not lazy by any means, in fact he's super busy and when there is free time, the kids deserve that time, so the house has been put on a back burner. The problem with repressing these needs for the last while, is what always happens when we hold back words or feelings - they suddenly burst and we bubble over. I am beginning to feel better already...
I must add here that cooking and hovering over a warm stove is what keeps me together at times when other things seem, well, not together. The worry of high heating bills and the need for a new dryer just seem to vanish as I work 4 pots at once or knead a big ball of bread dough. Some days I find myself hiding in the kitchen all day long!
My Gourmet Group had our second dinner last weekend, and I loved every minute of it - not even so much because of the food, all though it was food prepared in ways I had never tried and I did love every minute of that as well - but because here we were, eight ladies, excited about having created a meal together and enjoying each others company. It felt so Christmas-sy, so warm and relaxing. One of our ladies had never tried asparagus (yeah, I was surprised too!) and, oh my goodness, was I excited to be there when she did, almost like being there for a birth of some sort. Who says you need a restaurant, or a chef and wait staff for a good dinner party, entertaining at home is where it's at (for me). I get impatient with myself and my hosting skills at times, it reminds me of being a kid and trying to learn how to play the piano - I just wanted to play and do it perfectly without the trial and error and all that practice. At the same time I don't want to rush this last year before both of my girls are in full day school and I will be back at work (that was the plan from the beginning and I intend to stick it out), but those dollars do tempt me at times. In the meantime I am discovering ways to make things happen using what I have, or looking to nature and and basic items and creating something out of not much. That in itself is an art, let me tell you... but one I hope to keep even when I don't necessarily need to go that route.
So I will sign off with a link to a little something that I like to peek at with my morning coffee just about every day - As much as I love food, I have this thing for decorating, and I love it when a house or a room tells me about who lives there. Most of the spaces on this blog I would never adopt into my own home, but they spark creativity and encourage me to be who I am and to be proud of it! It can be boring to play it safe. I'll leave safety to driving and walking on ice in the winter... Thanks for listening!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Be a doer.

Mozzarella and Prosciutto Pinwheels.

Caramelized Onion, Walnut, Pear and Blue Cheese Tart

Penne Pasta with Italian Sausage, smashed Peas and fresh Basil

Three months... three months of new dinners each and every day = three months of many persuasive words shared with my offspring that what they are about to try may be new, but it is in fact super yummy. Sometimes it was a bit of lie, I suppose, as we all know when you make something the first time it rarely turns out perfect. But on the other hand I am quite impressed with them too, as they have tried many a food I can hardly convince some adult friends to taste. Learning comes by doing though, so doing I will do! If anything I am feeling quite confident to try a new technique or level of difficulty when cooking. It does surprise me a little that I seem to have figured out the direction I would like to call my niche, one of millions of possibilities, much sooner than anticipated. I will continue to get the hang of others as well, since they can often merge into another, as I finish my study books - albeit sooner than later. I am drawn to the world of the Mediterranean and Italian Peasant Food, and as I learn the basics, I would like to spin this with a slight sophistication, in presentation. Peasant food hardly deserves this lowly title, the food is fresh and made by hand, which to me brings out the cooks passion which then results in a beautiful meal. I have written over and over about the rustic beauty of food. I believe that as long as you have a good knife, a thick cutting board and a decent saute pan, you are all set to create culinary excellence. So if in doing we figure these things out, why do we all too often not even try? Here are a few things I have discovered a long the way:
-Menu writing is key.
-Wear an apron! It makes a statement and puts other distractions out of mind.
-Measure, weigh and prep all ingredients, mise en place, after reading all instructions, before beginning to cook.
-Keep the cutlery and utensil drawers open while cooking, for quick access to tools.
-Keep a journal close by to document your own recipes, successes or variations of recipes.
-Decide early on in the day what to make for dinner, or even the day before.
-Designate one cutting board for onions and the like.
-Always keep salad components in the fridge, as this compliments and brings to a new level any meal, from basic to splendid. It could even be the meal all on it's own, within just a few short minutes.
-Find new sources of protein, and create hearty meals. The meat won't be missed!
-Discover the aromatic world of fresh herbs and cheeses. Forget about cheddar for a little while!
-Enjoy candle light and a nice wine with dinner on a Wednesday. Even if it's spaghetti and meatballs. (With salad!)
-Have no fear in expecting kids to eat their veggies. We expect them to stop at red lights when crossing the road, too.
-Make your own salad dressing, and so keep them good for you - three parts olive oil to one part balsamic vinegar, a little salt and pepper, and finely chopped shallots - seriously, how simple is that?!
-And lastly, cooking and eating is often not so much about the food, but about connecting with those around us.