Wednesday, June 30, 2010

True love finds perfect muffin tops

Our first date was nothing spectacular, and yet I will always treasure the smile it brings back to my face. Far too young to be thinking about marriage, I couldn't help but wonder at how amazing it might be after just a simple few hours spent at Starbucks, with a tall, dark and handsome boy, sipping my $5 coffee. At that time, spending $5 on fancy coffee seemed a little extravagant, and so I felt amazingly special to share this pleasure with a good friend, who, much sooner than later, became my husband.

Ten years later, we are still very much in love, enjoying the small moments in life that create the bigger picture. We've been through ups and downs, stressful times and easy times. We have two beautiful daughters, that belong to us (for now, anyway!), a perfect doggy (hey, I get to be biased, too!) and a house on which we've unleashed our idea of decorating on.

All this started with $5 coffee, two Cafe Valencias, which not only opened my eyes to true and unconditional love, but also to the trio of coffee, orange and chocolate. It's one of those combinations that is just right.

And since all things can be wrapped up in either a muffin, when sweet, or a burger, if savoury, I felt inspired to turn out these:

Cafe Valencia Muffins
Makes 12

1/2 cup softened butter
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
1/2 cup 2% or higher milk
2 tsp instant coffee
zest of 1 orange
1/2 cup orange juice (about 1 orange)
1 tsp real vanilla extract
2 cups all purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
3/4 cup good quality dark chocolate chips

sugar and melted chocolate

Cream butter and sugar well, until fluffy and pale.
Beat in eggs, one at a time.
Stir instant coffee into milk, then add to sugar and butter mixture.
Add orange zest and juice, and vanilla. It will look as though the batter is curdling, don't panic! Everything will come together with the addition of the flour.
In a medium bowl combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and chocolate chips.
Fold into creamed mixture gently, taking care not to over mix.
Line muffin pan with muffin papers, fill each about 3/4 full to make 12 muffins.
Sprinkle about 1/4 tsp of granulated sugar on each.
Bake at 400 F, about 16 - 20 minutes, or until lightly golden.
Cool, then drizzle muffin tops with melted chocolate.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Not for the squeemish!

There's no doubt about it, chicken with the bones left in tact delivers more flavour and keeps even dry white meat succulent and juicy. But did you ever think chiropractic moves would be essential in the life of a home cook? Well, today they are.
The weather is far too hot (yay!) for turning on the oven and roasting a one hour chicken. Say good-bye to that until at least September. And yet bone-in chicken often takes too much time and heat on our trusty BBQ's, either resulting in a trip to the oven anyway to finish it off, or alternatively dried out chicken which is not so fun to devour. I prefer a couple of juicy drips running down my chin.

The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind... OK, so your hair is enjoying a little breeze, your neighbours' mouths are watering, and you may be sitting on comfy patio furniture sipping on some wine. I've heard much about it, however left it to people with far less flops to account for: It's time for a little Chicken under a Brick.
The worst part most certainly is cracking the bird's breast bone after butterflying it. But there's wine on the patio, don't forget... (And thank you, Ms. Chicken, I hope you had a good life, because you are about to make mine sweet.)

Voila - can I say it again - pizza stones are a kitchen must have! Especially for the couple of bucks they cost... Next stop, large rectangle baking stone so I can grill two chickens at a time.

I would recommend a practice run before showing off to friends how amazing your new talents are. Flare ups do happen and chicken needs to be cooked to 170 F to be presentable. I started off with a smaller bird, about 2 1/2 pounds, but I am sure a larger bird will deliver even greater results.

Chicken Under a Brick
Serves 2 - 4
1 chicken (about 3 pounds)
1 1/2 tsp coarse salt (kosher or sea salt)
1 tsp coarsely ground fresh black pepper
Cut the chicken in half down the back, using kitchen scissors, along both sides of the backbone. Discard. Cut off the outermost parts of the wingtips. Lay the chicken flat, and press down on the chicken's breast with medium pressure to crack (!) the breastbone. Using a mallet, pound the chicken gently and evenly to flatten to a uniform 1 1/2 inches.
Combine salt and pepper in a small bowl. Rub all over the chicken, inside and out. Work as far under the skin as possible without tearing the skin. Cover the chicken and rest at room temperature for 30 minutes. (Never, ever cook cold meat straight from the fridge!)
Fire up the grill to medium heat. Oil the grate using grape seed oil or shortening. Not too much though, or flare ups will be mighty!
Lay the chicken skin side down on the barbecue, stretching it out fully. Cover with a pizza stone or another nonflammable weight of several pounds, like a cast iron skillet. Grill the chicken with the cover open for 20 minutes. Remove the pizza stone, turn the chicken over (only once!) replacing the stone to continue cooking for another 15 - 25 minutes. The chicken is done when an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh reads 170 F and it has a nice crispy, golden brown skin.
When finished, rest the chicken on a cutting board for 5 minutes. To serve, carve along the breastbone, then portion as you wish.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Oh, the little things in life...

There are four summer words in the english language we all love to hear - "Shrimp on the Barbie". Doesn't that sound almost as endearing as, "I love you, please eat"?! It's possibly the easiest way to say these beautiful words; all you need is a Barbie - the fire kind, not one with long blond hair and impossible measurements - shrimp, and a few kitchen staples.

Before I forget, and I do easily forget if a notepad and pencil is not close by, I must tell you about some bacon from a few nights ago... Perfectly crispy, salty and sweet. It's a must try on all accounts, it's bacon with brown sugar, baked in the oven at 375 F. Words actually fail me to describe this phenomenon, it's no wonder Brown Sugar Bacon has, apparently, been all the rave as of late. For one pound of bacon, use 1/4 cup of brown sugar. Place the bacon single file in one or two rimmed rectangle baking dishes. It's a good idea to line the dishes with aluminum foil before lining up the bacon, as brown sugar sure does love to stick! Sprinkle the brown sugar over bacon evenly, bake for 15 - 30 minutes - depending on the thickness of the bacon, and material of the baking dish. I happened to use two different ones: my aluminum pan required just 15 minutes, where the stone pan needed 25. Please do use good quality, naturally smoked bacon. It's not much of a splurge! When finished, drain on paper towels for a minute, then try to hold yourself back and eat only 2 - 3 slices. I am ever so sorry about the lack of photos, I am the first to admit we all need a good photo or two with every recipe. But this one just didn't last, I could hardly hold back the troops, and so not much after the bacon came out of the oven, it was gone. It was just that good.

I bet Brown Sugar Bacon and Shrimp on the Barbie would be amazing together.

Shoot, now I'm hungry. So much for losing a couple of pounds before hitting the beach.

Oh well.

Shrimp! Here's how I love it:

1 lb medium or large uncooked, thawed shrimp, deveined and peeled
3 tbsp grape seed oil
the juice of half a lemon
2 - 3 cloves garlic
pinch white pepper
salt to taste, but only if the shrimp is not already salted (check the package labels)

Combine the marinade, and add the shrimp. Marinade for about 20 minutes at room temperature, then skewer.
Heat the Barbie on high heat. Cook about 1 1/2 minutes on each side, until firm and color has changed. Do not over cook, or these beautiful shrimps will be tough and I love you may only come out as I like you, a little.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010


The Soccer World Cup is in full swing as I write today, so perhaps an Italian flag should be replaced by a German one... I feel an apology coming on as I am terribly sorry to my German heritage, but when it comes to food, the Italians do take home the Gold. If you will notice the *coincidental* similarity of these two photos:

Do the Italians always have food on their minds?

Don't tell the authorities, but I think my passport is telling a lie! I am a typical Canadian, a Heinz 57 of many nationalities. (Of course my children are greater mutts than myself. But then, I have always been partial to mutts!) Still, I am convinced I should have been born somewhere between Italy and Spain. Although I would miss my blond hair.

And since you are wondering... No, I did not eat this much pasta in one sitting! This portion is for photography purposes only. (I did come close though... as this happened to be super yummy.)

I've had this dish buzzing around my head for a few days now. (Again, food on my mind at all times, very Italian-ish.) I am loving the fresh herbs in my garden, and I always stock Sundried Tomatoes in my pantry, as well as cream cheese - which is purchased in bulk and used in bulk. Garlic is never far off... and so I thought to myself, this must be a match made in Italy heaven. As I photographed the chopped herbs, tomatoes, and garlic, I couldn't help but think it looked an aweful lot like *a* flag. And so, a dish buzzing around in my head became a story buzzing even louder. A little like those horns at the World Cup.

Comparable to Spaghetti alla Carbonara, this pasta makes a great side to a crisp salad or fresh asparagus and grilled chicken. A good chef's knife comes in handy here - chopping the herbs, garlic and tomatoes finely is, I think, important for even flavour distribution. And don't forget to play with the ingredients - what's good for me may not be good for you. I happen to love a good amount of flavour... in other words use as much or as little herbs and tomatoes as you wish, it's sure to be tasty every time!

Asiago and Sundried Tomato Garden Spaghetti
Serves 4 - 6

3/4 - 1 lb Spaghetti
1/2 cup plain cream cheese (please don't use low fat)
2 - 3 tbsp olive oil
1/2 fresh basil, chopped (or a combination of basil and parsley)
1 (270 ml) jar Sundried Tomatoes packed in oil, drained and chopped
3 cloves Garlic, finely chopped
1 cup reserved pasta cooking water
fresh ground Pepper
Sea Salt
Asiago Cheese, a big chunk of it, for grating at the dinner table

Cook pasta in salted water to al dente, reserving 1 cup of the cooking water just before draining. Do not rinse pasta!!
In a large saucepan, combine cream cheese and olive with the garlic, herbs, tomatoes and fresh ground pepper over low heat until melted. Add the drained but not rinsed (!) spaghetti and reserved 1 cup pasta water. Stir to combine well. Season with salt to taste.
Serve with asiago cheese and a grater.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Will you be my neighbour?

Summer is all about taking it easy, right? My dog Cooper knows all about that one - hence we are working on a bit of a double chin. But isn't he handsome? He's a pro at snuggling too, by the way, and has a soothing way of waking me up in the morning. It sure beats the beep-beep-beep of an alarm clock. I'll take puppy eyes any day!

So summer. And taking it easy. Slow cooked fork-tender meats. Barbeques. And a cold beer. Summer dresses and breezy air cutting through heat. Are we ready? I say bring it on!

Besides, 3/4 of the way into my Sprout year, I find it fitting to slow down, to stick with the familiar (most of the time, anyway, as I am sure there will be days I will be tempted to roll up some sushi, bake a mile high cake, or try a new vegetable), and get really good at just a few things.

My kiddos don't seam to mind. Last night at dinner I commented on how they've done an amazing job eating lately. They said it was because the food was normal. I threw in that a few short months ago there was nothing normal about cilantro, or raw onions for that matter. No comments after that, just chewing, and asking to be excused once mouths were wiped.

Interestingly enough, nine months ago I would have never made my own salsa. Roasting a chicken was reserved for a special day. Today, it is stress free cooking. It's fresh, and fast and comfortable. Learning can have it's ups and downs. And failures. But having learned is really, really nice. I'd like to think this is only the beginning, and I am proud of my family for sticking with me. Having once thought I would cook gourmet meals, beautifully plated, artistically styled... I realize now that cooking from scratch is what matters. Cooking it right, making it fun and having family and friends enjoying - mmmmm. It means the world to me.

So here's what I love most, and plan to work on over the next three months:

Bread - a good variety of shapes and tastes

Slow cooked meats - not the Crock Pot kind (even if there is nothing wrong with it)

Organic Burgers - I am convinced anything can be turned into a burger!

Fresh vegetables - lots of them, too... and summer salads

How's my vegetable garden, you ask? Well, it's turned into more of an herb garden. But I love herbs, so why not?! Besides, the idea of being able to harvest all summer long and having more than I can use sounds so... neighbourly!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Cookie with benefits

Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Cookies, with a Banana thrown in
Makes 3 1/2 - 4 dozen - These freeze amazingly well, and are a yummy treat frozen! Try sandwiching a scoop of ice cream in between two. Mmmmm summer!

3/4 cup butter, softened
1 cup white sugar
1 egg
1 1/2 cups flour
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp nutmeg
3/4 tsp cinnamon
1 cup overripe banana, mashed
1 cup chocolate chips
1 3/4 cups rolled oats

Preheat the oven to 375.
In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar together. Beat in egg.
All at once, add the flour, salt, baking soda, nutmeg and cinnamon on top of the butter mixture.
Stir together the dry ingredients, then mix into the butter. (Hey, it's a short cut I've used for years! And only admitted to it after watching Anna Olsen doing the same on her TV show. Save a dish, have a dish!)
Next, stir in the mashed banana, chocolate and oatmeal.
Drop by teaspoon onto ungreased cookie sheets, bake for 10 minutes or until lightly browned.
Let cool and store in airtight container.

I love to add a little extra something to my baking. It's possible I justify to myself the sugar and butter added also, but I am pretty sure I'm quite hooked on the flavours fruits and vegetables, nuts and dried fruits add to a cookie, muffin and loaf. Or pancake!

It's been hot lately... oh so very hot! If you know me well, you will remember I am not a huge fan of winter, so after a long bout of cold weather, I down right refuse to turn the air on until even I need a little relief.

Heat + bananas = super fast ripening... Basically, we eat them "straight from the package" for the first 2 or 3 days. Then I freeze a few cut into one inch chunks for smoothies. The rest I allow to get just about black, overripe and ready for baking. But how much banana bread can one family eat in a summer? Thus the cookie.