August 31, 2006

And This Little Piggy Went Wee Wee Wee Wee All the Way Onto My Spit...

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One of my most fond childhood memories are the summer pig roasts that used to happen with my family and some of our good friends. Pig roasts were a day long affair with lots of food and drinks, sunshine and great times. And as can be expected when my Dad has a hand in things, it was never a small pig. Not by a long shot. We would roast a bonafide, 70 pound beast! We could have fed an army. Of course, when you’re cooking something that big, you’re going to need a special contraption, an ordinary bbq will not do the trick. Not a problem, Dad and his friend made their own spit out of a huge old oil barrel, with the rotisserie powered by the motor of a recycled lawn mower. Dad’s resourceful like that. The spit was wood burning and produced lots of smoke that you could smell for miles. The nearer the pig got to being done, the closer I would stay to the spit because I knew that when Dad opened the hood to check the pig he’d break me off a piece of crispy skin to snack on. The pig would cook until the meat was juicy and tender and no one could wait any longer to dig in. It was always delicious. The pig roast was an annual summer event until the year our friends moved away and we soon followed with a move of our own, leaving the pig roasting tradition behind us.

Over the years we’ve always recalled the summer pig roasts with fondness. Many times we’ve talked about having a roast but nothing ever comes of it. It looked like it might happen at my family reunion last year and then again this year, phone calls were made, but in the end we had hamburgers and sausages like every other year. After coming so close to finally getting another pig roast, the issue wouldn’t die down. Dad and I were especially keen on keeping the flames burning and at every opportunity would make subtle attempts to persuade others that a pig roast was a great idea. For example:

Mom: “Do you know when your next dentist appointment is?”
Me: “Yeah, I think it’s two days after the pig roast.”
Mom: “We’re having a pig roast?”
Me: “Hey Dad! Mom just said we’re having a pig roast!”
Dad: “Well if you’re mom wants a pig roast, then we’d better have one… I’ll order the pig.”

Our efforts were eventually rewarded. Some time after our Asian themed dinner, (when my brother and family were visiting) we decided we should start doing regular theme dinners with the Quiggies and anyone else we could get to join in. I suggested a Mexican theme for our next venture and the wheels were in motion. A pig roast could definitely fall within the Mexican theme and as luck would have it a new butcher shop had just opened in town (with pigs available to order) and Dad had seen that the hardware store rented spits. I would once again have my pig roast!

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Granted, no pig roast now could ever compare to the ones from my youth, but the smell of the pig on the spit sure came as close as it could to bringing me back there. This year however, the spit was rented from the hardware store, used gas instead of wood and the rotisserie was powered electrically, presumably with a motor designed for that purpose. Dad tried to make up for the gas power by putting packets of woodchips below the pig to make smoke. We had a good sized group of people joining us, about 20 of them, but none of the original crew. The pig was not nearly the size it once was, at 28 pounds it was more piglet than one of the beasts we had done before. Dad gave him a little extra weight by stuffing him with venison.

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Since we had a Mexican theme, everyone was to bring an appropriate dish with them to accompany the little piggy. We had some gazpacho, quesadillas, nachos, salsa and a decidedly un-Mexican salad of spinach and blueberries which was allowed a spot on the table because they stuck a Mexican flag in the bowl. I also made a grilled corn salad and baked beans. The desserts did not even make an attempt to be Mexican, as people arrived with a store bought cheesecake, and a peach cobbler of sorts. I, on the other hand, took a chocolate cookie recipe which I had seen over at The Candied Quince (thanks for the recipe) and decided to make it my own ‘Mexican cookie’ by adding cinnamon and some hot pepper. Cookies with attitude. The hot pepper actually ended up being a mixture of cayenne, ancho chilli and habanero, as I kept adding more to get just the right amount of spiciness. Hot pepper in cookies may sound weird, but trust me, these were great, sweet with a hot aftertaste. There were none leftover at the end of the night.

Most importantly though, the pig was excellent, there’s leftovers for sandwiches tomorrow, and hopefully the annual pig roast has been resumed.
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August 23, 2006

Follow the Instructions...

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Sometimes I really look forward to making a recipe I’ve seen and develop a certain image in my head about how it should taste and how it should look. The problem with this is that what I make does not always turn out like the image in my head. Even when the results are edible and other people seem to enjoy it, if it doesn’t turn out as planned I’m still disappointed. This was the unfortunate case when I decided to make a tart from a recipe I had seen in Ruth Reichl’s book Growing Up At the Table. The tart was called an Oléron Berry Tart, after the French island that it was created on and was originally made with raspberries. The description in the book was so good that I had no choice but to make this tart. Raspberries were no longer in season here though, and I had a tree full of small, but ripe peaches in the backyard so I decided peaches were an acceptable substitute. The tart was a fairly time consuming process as I had to first make the pate sucrée and let it rest 3 hours in the fridge. I then had to make the almond custard and peel a whole punch of peaches. I think the custard is where things started to go wrong. I ground the almonds in the food processor but I couldn’t get a fine enough grind. I should have used the coffee grinder to turn the almonds into a powder, but I didn’t and I think the end result turned out grainy because of this. The dough was simple enough and I think it turned out well, but it also contributed to my less than perfect tart. I had to blind bake the crust first, let it cool and then put the custard and peaches in. I didn’t let the crust cool completely so when I put the custard in it became runny and never fully recovered. I put the tart back in the oven to finish baking and when I took it out, it looked pretty, so I had high hopes, maybe it would be alright after all. After letting it cool (sufficiently this time, but the damage had already been done) and topping it with additional peaches and a sprinkling of icing sugar I cut into it, ready to sample this amazing tart. As soon as I had removed the first piece I knew the tart had not been a success. It was runny and messy and the custard had not set. My disappointment increased after I took my first bite, the roughly processed almonds created a grainy texture. Sigh. For those who didn’t know the tart was coming and who hadn’t read Ruth Reichl’s description, it was apparently nice enough for seconds, this was only slightly comforting. I’m confident however that this tart has potential and once I get up the courage I plan on making it again. Next time I will grind the almonds to a powder and let the crust cool completely before adding the custard. In other words, I will follow the recipe’s instructions. What a novel idea. For anyone else who feels up to the challenge, here’s the recipe:

Oléron Berry Tart

1 ½ c sifted flour
¼ c sugar
¼ pound butter
2 T cream
1 egg yolk

Combine flour, sugar and butter.
Add in cream and egg yolk, mix lightly and add water if need be to hold it together.
Let dough rest in refrigerator 3 hours.
Remove, roll into tart pan and blind bake for 20min at 350F, remove foil and bake 4-5 min further. Let cool.

¾ c blanched almonds
¾ c sugar
3 T soft butter
3 egg yolks
1 tsp vanilla
4 c raspberries

Combine almonds and 3 T sugar in food processor to a fine powder.
Cream butter with remaining sugar, add yolks until smooth, add almond mixture and vanilla.
Spread this into the tart shell and add 2 c of raspberries on top.
Sprinkle with 2 tsp sugar.
Bake at 350F for 40 min, cool for 2 hours and then cover with remaining berries.
Glaze if you’d like or dust with icing sugar.

You will notice that making the tart will leave you with 4 leftover egg whites. I wasn’t about to let these go to waste so I had to find something else to make. I’ve been on a bread baking kick lately. I love kneading the dough and I love the smell of fresh baked bread. So I went on a search do find a bread recipe that required egg whites. I came across one for an Italian loaf that required 2 egg whites and I set about making it. After the bread had its first rise Dad asked if I wanted to go sailing. But what about my bread? Sailing won. I punched the dough down, covered it again and left for the marina. Upon my return a few hours later my bread had about quadrupled in size and was threatening to leave the bowl I had left it in. This was interesting. I shaped it into a loaf, let it rise again, (this did not take much time, it was already huge) and threw it in the oven. It turned out light and fluffy so maybe the extra rising time was good for it.

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The bread only used up 2 of the 4 leftover egg whites, so with the other 2 I made black and white coconut macaroons. I did half a batch with just some vanilla and nutmeg and the other half with cocoa. I like the way the two look plated together.

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After making the bread and macaroons and sailing, I wanted something easy for dinner. I had leftover ravioli in the freezer from the last time I made them, as well as a basket full of ripe tomatoes from the garden, begging to be used. I quartered the tomatoes and an onion and threw them in a pan to roast in the oven along with some garlic. When they were done I emptied the pan into the food processor, added some basil and thyme, white wine and stock and blended it all together. Presto- soup/sauce for my ravioli and an easy dinner after a busy day.

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August 21, 2006

Learning To Eat

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I think I’ve made it abundantly clear that I love to cook, to bake (despite repeated failures), to putter around the kitchen and most importantly to EAT! That being said, it’s hard for me to understand why everyone else doesn’t enjoy food as much as I do. Ok, maybe that’s a little much. All I ask, however, is that people can at least appreciate food, where it comes from and the process of making it. It would be nice if people were not afraid of trying new things, if every now and then they would venture out of their comfort zones to experience other foods. A lot of people don’t do this, and for the life of me I can’t figure out why. Perhaps this is due in part to how they were raised. If your parents don’t expose you to a variety of foods when you’re young you may not know what’s out there. This excuse is limited. There comes a time when you leave your parents home and at that point you’re free to explore on your own. When that time come, some people don’t know where to begin, I say it doesn’t matter, start anywhere, just do it! I have a friend who’s like this, who never tries new things (sadly many friends like this, but I’m thinking of one in particular) and this summer I helped to expose her to some new things. I took her away from the world of frozen M&M Meats dinners in a box and to a nice Thai restaurant. She would not have gone on her own, but was willing to try something new with me by her side. Food for her, at home and in restaurants had always been typical North American fare, that’s what her parents ate and that’s what she ate too. She said that her Mom would never dream of taking the two of them to a Thai restaurant, it just wouldn’t occur to her. I was determined to break her old habits.

While perusing the menu she was unsure of what to order but refused curry of any type. With a little guidance she picked a cashew dish that I was confident would be both familiar and exotic for her. I chose a peanut and coconut curry for myself in the hopes that I could convert her. I had a feeling that she had never experienced a real curry before and was right on this point. In her mind, curry was bright yellow and overpoweringly spicy with mushy vegetables. I informed her that this could not be farther from the truth. Curries come in all sorts of varieties, yellow, red, green, and they vary in spiciness, some being actually quite sweet. You can get shrimp or chicken or beef or veggie curries and they can include coconut or peanuts and pleasant Thai flavours like lemongrass. I convinced her that she had to at least try a little bit of mine. When the dishes arrived she conceded that my curry did indeed look appetizing and better still it tasted great! We ended up splitting the two dishes between us and she admitted that curry was not at all what she had originally thought and was happy to be proven wrong. On our walk home I proceeded to point out some excellent dishes on menus posted outside of the restaurants we passed and encouraged her to try some of these on her own. You can imagine how thrilled I was when I recently received an email from her saying that when her Mom came to visit she took her out to eat both Thai and Moroccan food. My pupil had become a teacher.

I was fortunate that as a child my parents always ate a variety of foods and as I’ve grown their tastes and mine have continued to expand and encompass new and interesting flavours and food from other cultures. I never thought that the food we ate was unusual but as I got older it became increasingly clear to me that not everyone ate the same things my family did. Friends would come over to my house and some of them were wary of what I would try to feed them. I couldn’t believe it when someone had never eaten zucchini or shrimp or morels or mussels or grapefruit! I ate half a grapefruit almost every morning when they were in season, I thought everybody ate these things. It never ceases to amaze me when someone tells me years later “the first time I ever had that was at your house.” It’s not that my family didn’t eat the typical pizza, pasta, hamburgers and hot dogs, we did, but we also had so much more than that. That doesn’t mean that I always loved everything my parents put in front of me or that I shunned foods that other children craved, macaroni and cheese was one of my absolute favourites, I lobbied for it for many lunches. I loved it so much that I learned to make it on my own at a very young age so that even if my parents weren’t having it, that didn’t mean I was going to be deprived.

There were times when I didn’t fully embrace a new food, but I was always encouraged to try it, and I always did. As a child, the only foods, that, after trying, I decided I didn’t like were white mushrooms, olives and asparagus, everything else was fair game. I used to turn up my nose when my Grandpa would eat olives and try to feed them to me too. I would push them away, and he would tell me the same thing every time; that he didn’t like olives either when he was a kid, but then his Dad sat him down and made him eat 10 of them in a row and if I sat down and ate 10 of them, I too would like olives. Gradually over the years I learned to like asparagus as my mom just kept on growing it in the garden. I learned to like all types of mushrooms, especially after I had eaten them marinated and then grilled. And finally, after years of claiming to hate olives, my weekly trips to the Farmer’s market in Australia proved me wrong. They had olives of all different sizes, colours and flavours. Some were stuffed with cheese, others were marinated in lemon and oil and herbs, and all of them were available for sampling. The thing about olives was that they had always been visually appealing for me, but I had never enjoyed the taste. The friendly Aussies fed me all sorts of olives and convinced that they did indeed taste as good as they looked.

Currently, there are no foods that I can think of that I don’t like. But there are also tons of things I’ve never tried. I’ve never had foie gras or truffles, but I’ve never been offered them either. As much as my parents exposed me to new and different foods at home, we never went out to eat in restaurants and there are lots of things that I didn’t get to try until I moved to Toronto for University. There I was able to try sushi and sashimi, things that don’t even exist in the town that I’m from. I explored Kensington market and sampled Jamaican patties and doubles from Patty King, a variety of cheeses from Global Cheese and different fruits and vegetables from the stands in the market. I wandered around Chinatown and have developed a love of sweet red bean buns and taro bubble tea. In Koreatown I had bul go gi, at Pho Hung I had Vietnemese soups and in Little Italy I had canoli. Every where I went was a chance to try something new. Traveling in Australia, (aside from finally making me like olives) exposed me to all sorts of things I had never had- oysters, Greek yogurt, passion fruit, some great wines, Tim Tams (!), vegemite, (I didn’t say everything was great, only that I’d never had it before, I hear it’s an acquired taste) and an abundant use of sweet chili sauce. I look forward to traveling to other parts of the world to sample what they have to offer too.
I actively seek out new foods to try because eating is more than just something you do to survive. Eating is an experience, it’s an integral part of life. You employ all of your senses in a meal. Think about it. Taste. How does a piece of fresh piece of pineapple taste? Smell. What does the house smell like when there’s bread baking in the oven? Hearing. What kind of sound does a piece of meat make when it hits a hot grill? Touch. What kind of texture does a high quality ice cream have in your mouth? Sight. Does lobster make your eyes light up when you see it spread out on the dinner table, or do you love the sight of fancy desserts at a bakery? I would even go so far as to say my “6th sense” is food related too… I always knew when there was something tasty being created in the kitchen. My brother used to call me a vulture as I would appear with an empty glass every time he made a milkshake. Food is just important in so many ways other than sustenance. In many cultures meals are a time of celebration. And when you visit other countries, perhaps the best way to get to know the people, their customs and traditions is to break bread with them.

Anyways, I’ve rambled on for far too long and I never even got around to explaining what got me started on this rant, which was that my younger cousins were picky eaters when they came to visit and this made me sad. So to make me happy (and to end this post now, for everyone’s sanity) you can all try something new and report back on what that was. Bon appetit!

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August 14, 2006

Moderate Sized Empanadas With Jumbo Sized Flavour

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Well it’s about time I got around to making my namesake. It’s more than just a flashy title you know, it’s real now. I’ve actually made empanadas. And as much as I love things bigger, I ended up making moderate sized as opposed to jumbo empanadas. This may seem like a let down at first, but understand that I was serving them for dinner, (and not to Len but to my parents, Grandma and younger cousins) along with an orzo-feta-tomato salad and not everyone has as big an appetite as I do.

As usual I began my recipe search online and found a recipe for empanada dough at As for the filling, I was not satisfied with their suggestions so I kept the dough as is and altered the filling to my liking, (unlike the sour cream chocolate chip cookies, this turned out to be the good kind of altering, not the kind that makes cookies turn into muffins). Now before anyone goes bounding into the kitchen to make empanadas, (as you all really should) let me forewarn you that this is no small task, it’s a fairly time consuming process. Although as far as I’m concerned that’s part of the fun and it was well worth the effort. That being said, here we go:
The process began with dough making, something I always enjoy, and am beginning to improve on substantially. As soon as I stepped into the kitchen I was already predicting a success and I doubled the recipe right off the bat. Considering my track record with things not turning out as planned this was a bold move. On another day, the word bold could quite easily be replaced with foolish, but not today, I was feeling good about things. As with any pastry type dough I make, I used frozen butter, grated it into my flour and used my hands to bring it together with the other ingredients. I wrapped that up and put it in the fridge to chill and went about making a filling. One of the recipes I saw used potato, chorizo and peppers and that looking like a good start to me however it lacked spices, and I like spices. I decided my empanadas would be stuffed with chorizo, beef, peppers, potato, onions, garlic, curry sauce and cumin. I cooked all of this together, overestimating slightly what I would need, but that’s ok because this mixture was so good on its own that I put away the extra without any trouble.

While waiting for my dough to rest in the fridge and the stuffing to cool down I made the orzo salad. I’d never had orzo before, but found some in the cupboard so I decided to see what I could come up with. I went out to the garden and got a few cups of cherry tomatoes, basil and parsley, found a tub of feta in the fridge and some pinenuts in the cupboard (which I roasted) and started building a colourful salad. While in the garden I also gathered some bigger tomatoes and cilantro to make a salsa sauce for the empanadas. Once salad and salsas were made it was time to divide the dough, roll it out and start stuffing empanadas. I ended up making 22 empanadas which even had pretty crimped edges, like I said, I was feeling good. The empanadas that were for dinner then received an eggwash and were popped into the oven to fill the house with wonderful smells. Twenty five minutes later and golden brown, my moderate sized empanadas were happily consumed by all in attendance. They even pleased my younger cousin’s picky palates, leading to them asking for seconds, an accomplishment all on its own. Granted my empanadas were not jumbo and Len wasn’t there to enjoy them, but at least now I can say that I’m capable of producing empanadas of considerable quality and I have now pulled off another success. Olé!

August 11, 2006

Sour Cream Never Tasted So Sweet

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Today’s cooking inspiration came from a tub of sour cream in the fridge that was rapidly approaching its expiration date. I decided that with this tub of sour cream I could redeem myself from my previous attempt at chocolate ice cream. I would do things differently this time, mainly not using inferior quality chocolate. I found a recipe for plain sour cream ice cream, which didn’t sound all that appealing, but then I added a large quantity of homemade chocolate syrup to the mix. Big improvement. I blended all of this together, and I’m not gonna lie, I poured myself a small glass of it. MMmmmmmm chocolatey, with just a little bit of tang. Then I stuck the blender in the fridge overnight so that everything could chill before I poured it into the ice cream machine. It took a whole lot of self restraint for me not to drink some of it every time I opened the fridge. Once into the ice cream machine, shock of shockers, I actually remembered to churn it… ok, so I set the oven timer to remind me periodically, but I did it nonetheless. And I have to pat myself on the back for the outcome, the ice cream is sinfully rich and creamier than any of my other ventures into the frozen world of sweet treats.

Delicious as it was, the ice cream didn’t use up the entire tub of sour cream so I needed another recipe. I had recently visited a fellow Foodie’s blog, called Humble Pie. She had made sour cream chocolate chip cookies and the picture looked awfully good. She included the recipe so I was game to try them. After achieving such good results with the ice cream, I shouldn’t have been surprised when the cookies were not as successful. At some point I have to accept the fact that cookies, pastries, etc., require precise measurements and precise measurements rarely factor into my cooking. Baking is different from creating a main course, I can’t just throw in whatever I want, in whatever ratio I want. I am aware of this, but for some reason whenever I start baking I decide that I’m an authority on all subject matters and could improve upon the current recipe if I only added more of one ingredient, less of another, and what the heck, let’s get rid of this ingredient altogether and add 3 other ones. Even when I use measuring cups I tend to do so haphazardly. Today my slack measuring meant that I added quite a bit more sour cream than was required, however this wasn’t entirely a measurment issue but more of a convenience issue. I needed to use up the last of the sour cream so that I didn’t have to make a third sour cream creation. In any case, this resulted in a batter that was more moist than usual. I noticed this, but didn’t fix it by adding some more flour, I don’t know why. I think I actually measured the flour quite accurately for the original recipe. Even though that didn’t help my cookies, I am somewhat comforted by that because at least I was doing something right. I did not however, follow the recipe when it came to the amount of baking soda I added. Inexplicably, I did not add extra flour, but I did add way too much baking soda. Instead of cookies I ended up with light, puffy things that are on the verge of being a muffin top. They aren’t bad at all, they’re just not cookies in the traditional sense of the word. It happens.

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As I stood looking at my funny little cookies, a stroke of genius hit me. The cookie-muffins may not have been outstanding on their own, but everything’s better with ice cream. I got the chocolate sour cream ice cream out of the freezer, scooped some onto a cookie and squished a second cookie on top. Voila! Ice cream sandwich... sort of, I think they kind of look like a burger, an ice cream burger, (hence my “burger and beer” picture).

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Call it a burger or call it a sandwich, these will definitely be appreciated by my younger cousin who’s coming to visit tomorrow. Who am I kidding? They’ll be appreciated by me, right now.

Back With A New Blog, Ravioli and Marinated Mushrooms

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Earlier this week the new issue of Bon Appetit arrived and in it was a recipe for an eggless pasta. I was ready to try my hand at pasta again, but as usual, I wasn’t happy just leaving the recipe the way it was. I decided that I would use BA’s recipe for pasta dough (which was supposed to be shaped into little shells) to make ravioli. And since I was making ravioli I might as well make 2 different types, one veg, one meat. The veg was pretty basic- spinach and ricotta, sometimes that’s all you need. The meat was a little different. I went foraging in the deep freeze to see what we had in the way of meat that I could grind up. I found some venison and decided that was as good as anything. The venison was acquired in the back yard last year. I have a big back yard. Dad likes to sit in trees. Deer like the apples that fall from trees. Sometimes the deer do not notice that Dad is sitting is a nearby tree. That’s unfortunate for the deer, but very fortunate for my ravioli. I ground up the venison and then cooked it with peppers and onion, some basil from the garden and a few other spices picked at random from the spice cupboard.

So now I had my 2 fillings, all I needed to do was roll out the dough. I like making dough, I like the process of making a flour volcano and gradually collapsing it into the wet ingredients in the middle. What I like the best is actually the kneading process, it’s somehow therapeutic. If you’ve screwed up a bunch of other things in the kitchen, kneading dough, be it pasta, bread or otherwise is a great stress reliever. And you get to be messy and use your hands, it’s fun. For real. So anyways, I made my dough with no problems at all, but I knew I was working towards the tricky part for me, which is using the pasta-roller-outer to get the dough to the proper thinness. I didn’t even bother trying to do this on my own, I enlisted Dad’s help right away. It’s definitely a 2 person process, and with 2 people the rolling out went quite smoothly.

Now for assembling the ravioli. The pasta-roller-outer came with a sort of hand roller, similar to a paint roller with a few spiky wheels on it. This appeared to be what you would use to make ravioli. The only problem was that the wheels were spaced much too close together for my liking. A roller like that would have produced very small ravioli and by now you should know how I feel about small things. It wasn’t going to happen. I used the edge of a dough scraper to make my cuts. Dough scraper may or may not be what it’s actually called, but that’s what I use it for. It’s a flexible metal rectangle that’s rounded on one side so you can hold onto it and it’s great for slicing through dough and then scraping it off the counter when it wasn’t floured well enough. This made plain squares though and I wanted pretty edges like the ravioli roller would have made. This led me to use the edge of the roller to re-edge the ravioli. I did about 6 of them and said to hell with it, the ravioli can be straight squares.

For the sauce I more or less also followed the pasta sauce recipe that was in Bon Appetit. It called for fresh tomatoes and all I had to do was walk out to my garden and fill a basket. I generally refer to the garden as if I’m actually the one growing all of this wonderful produce. HA! Although I love the results, much to my parents chagrin, I hate the process. Mom and Dad spend hour after hour in the garden; weeding, watering, planting, doing whatever it is you have to do to keep a garden going. At my house this is no small task, there are lots of gardens which include vegetables, fruit, herbs and a ridiculous amount of all sorts of flowers. Some of the gardens are raised, some are built around water features, one of them is in the foundation of an old barn (which also includes the zen rock garden), basically, there’s just a lot of work to be done. For a long time my parents tried to get me to help out. They tried making it part of weekly chores, tried guilting me into it, tried bribing me, I wouldn’t even do it when they offered to pay me quite well for it. They’ve given up now and we’re all happier. I cut the grass, that’s my contribution. However, I also pillage the garden on a daily basis in search of ingredients for whatever I’m making. This means that most of what I make has only the freshest ingredients, (like my pasta sauce) and if we don’t grow it there’s always the Tuesday morning Farmer’s Market. The only downside, if you chose to view it as such, is that whatever is in season gets used as much as possible so that nothing goes to waste, recall at this point my cooking adventures with rhubarb and zucchini. Last year we were inundated with cherry tomatoes so we dried them in the oven and put them in mason jars with olive oil and some herbs. We’re still eating them. But I’m not complaining, I love what I get out of the garden. There’s currently a loaded peach tree in the barn foundation and any day now I’m going to be picking (and then cooking with) multiple baskets of peaches…

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Yesterday when I was looking through the fridge for something or other I noticed there were some mushrooms that should probably be used up shortly. I didn’t want them in what I was making at the time, but decided to marinate them overnight and then grill them up today. My friend’s mom makes great grilled marinated mushrooms, however this friend is currently in New Zealand and although I’m sure her mom would have been thrilled to give me the recipe had I of called her, I decided to wing it on my own. My marinade was some variation of the following ingredients- fresh squeezed lemon, olive oil, salt, pepper, Dijon mustard, honey and balsamic vinegar. I just kept adding stuff until I thought it tasted alright. I am pleased to say that my hodge-podge of a marinade produced some excellent grilled mushrooms which I then placed into a bowl of 2 varieties of lettuce, which were, of course, picked fresh from the garden.

August 10, 2006

Zucchinis Are Attacking My Garden

Anyone who has ever grown zucchini will know that once they get started, there’s no stopping them. They will grow a foot overnight. Where just yesterday you had 1 zucchini, today there will be 5. People will start avoiding you so that you can’t pawn off your extra zucchini on them. It gets to the point where you have to start leaving them anonymously on neighbour’s doorsteps just to get rid of them. That being said, there is a lot that you can do with zucchini and in the winter I resent having to pay for them at the grocery store when just months earlier I could have built a house out of zucchini.

When your neighbours figure out who’s responsible for the zucchinis and start throwing them back at your house there’s nothing you can do but head into the kitchen are start figuring out some new ways to use this abundant vegetable. Should you ever find yourself in this position, here are some suggestions that I’ve attempted in the past week, or will be attempting in the coming weeks:

--> Chop it up and add zucchini to stir frys.
--> Slice the zucchini in half lengthwise, scoop out the seeds and stuff it with whatever you’d like. Rice, other veggies and cheese works well. Bake it in the oven or grill it.
--> Make a zucchini “lasagna”, replacing the noodles with strips of zucchini.
--> Grill slices of zucchini with other vegetables, and layer them onto a baguette with hummus for a different take on a sandwich.
--> Make chocolate and zucchini cakes or muffins, (one batter can be turned into pretty much any shape you want). Yes, this actually works quite well and for anyone who is unsure of this I’m fairly certain I could feed you a chocolate chip zucchini muffin without telling you what was in it and you’d be none the wiser. You can’t actually taste the zucchini as a vegetable, but it adds moisture. If it works for carrot cake, it can work for zucchini.
--> Instead of scalloped potatoes, make scalloped zucchini. It’s the same concept as the lasagna, just replace the potato with zucchini, or use both in the same dish. Any kind of zucchini ‘au gratin’ works well.
--> Make a zucchini quiche, using zucchini as the crust. Grilling it first is advisable.
--> Add zucchini to omelets.
--> Mashed zucchini instead of mashed potatoes, add some pepper, garlic, scallions and butter.
--> Deep fried zucchini. You can eat zucchini flower blossoms as well, deep frying them or stuffing them, all on their own they make nice garnish.
--> Make savoury zucchini pancakes with fresh herbs and sour cream.

Like I said, you’ve got to start being creative and you’ve got to start disguising the zucchini or you may experience a revolt among those who are repeatedly being served zucchini dishes. The chocolate zucchini cake is definitely a good choice here, you can add nuts and chocolate chips too. If you make mass quantities of these and distribute them to your neighbours, (without telling them the mystery ingredient) you may win back some of them, who, just days earlier, were hurling zucchinis at your house and muttering threats. Good luck.

August 06, 2006

The Culinary Week in Review

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My brother, sister in law and nephew have been visiting for the week so I’ve been fairly busy, but still cooking. Or maybe lazy, but still cooking would be more accurate, I’m not really ever that busy, am I? Potato, pot-ah-to. We decided to have an Asian inspired dinner one night, the Quiggies were invited too. Everyone got in on the cooking for this meal. Appetizers were pork and shrimp dumplings from the Quiggies and cold rolls courtesy of me because Dad likes those. I had debated making sushi because I hadn’t done that in a while, but you can’t get good ingredients for that here. There’s definitely no sashimi grade fish in my grocery store, so cold rolls it was they never disappoint. Main dishes included spicy shrimp stir fry, chicken chow mein, ginger beans, bbq ribs and honey and soy glazed chicken wings. My mom, sister in law and I started chopping up all the veggies and organizing each dish so that it would be ready to go when we wanted to cook it. We were going to the beach before dinner so we wanted to have everything ready for when we came back. Dad and my brother were in charge of the bbq, all they had to do before dinner was grill some chicken for the chicken chow mein. Well, they got as far as putting the chicken on the bbq and then we left for the beach. Without removing the chicken from the bbq. Blackened chicken was not on the menu. That chicken was tossed when we finally returned home a couple hours later and they started over with a fresh piece. The second time around garnered much better results. The spicy shrimp stir fry was originally supposed to be chicken but considering the fate of the first chicken, shrimp was definitely the way to go. The chicken chow mein ended up being good despite the slow start, we added in shiitake mushrooms from the mushroom man, (we also picked up some Lion’s Mane mushies and pink oysters while we were there, we’re frying those up with some bbq’d steak tonight). Ginger beans weren’t part of the original plan, but we had a whole lot of them, so there you go. The honey and soy glazed chicken wings were popular, but I’m losing my love of chicken wings, ribs are more substantial. And these ribs were high quality. I added a habanero pepper to the marinade so they had some nice heat to them. Dad and I are already planning a strictly ribs night in the near future. For some reason Dad was fretting about not having enough food, maybe we should make a fried rice dish he said. Clearly that was not even a possibility as we will be eating leftovers for days and an extra dish would have been overkill. Dad relented and accepted that we wouldn’t be making anything else only because 1- Mom said he would have to make it, (thus relinquishing his roll as bbq master) and 2- The bbq, oven, and all 4 stove burners were already in use. For dessert I made coconut ice cream which my sister in law diligently churned for me every ten minutes after I put it in the freezer. I always forget to churn the ice cream and it ends up with the paddle frozen in place and I have to hack away at it to free the paddle which is a largely frustrating ordeal and I don’t like it. With her help it turned out very well. The coconut ice cream turned out rich, very rich, but there were no complaints, (except from my sister in law, who complained my brother was stealing all of her ice cream). I would have liked to add ginger and lime to my ice cream, but decided plain was more of a surefire success when feeding a crowd. All in all, the whole meal was well received and I’ve decided I need to figure out how to get on the new TLC show Dinner Takes All, best dinner party each week wins a thousand bucks, who doesn’t love that?

Besides the Asian inspired dinner, here’s a random rundown of some other dishes I’ve been up to in the past week:

Corn chowder- because Dad bought a dozen corn and then bought another dozen before finishing the first one. I searched for a recipe and ended up combining 3 of theirs to create one of my own because I didn’t have all of the ingredients for any single recipe and I didn’t particular like any one of their methods used. Luckily the chowder was especially good (bacon and sweet potato contributed their best assets) and I’ve made it twice now.

Pizza grilled on the bbq- because if it can’t be done on the bbq, why do it at all? I made the dough, (remembering to put in the yeast this time, pure genius), and then grilled one side of the dough, flipped it over, put all of the sauce, toppings and cheese on the grilled side, and then put it back on the bbq to finish it off. I highly recommend it. I suspect I’ll try smoking a pizza sooner or later.

Quiche- because I had a leftover pie shell after making a peach, blueberry and gooseberry pie, and I didn’t feel like making another one so I made quiche for lunch one day. The original recipe was for a straight cheese quiche, but I decided I would add veggies. Of course, I didn’t account for all the extra space that onions, zucchini (the garden is exploding with them) and peppers would take up. This meant that I had extra egg, cream, cheese and milk mixture that wouldn’t fit in the pie shell. The whole point of making the quiche was to use up leftovers, not create more of them. I decided to make a second, smaller, quiche to avoid another leftover situation. I tore up some stale bread (getting rid of more excess) and covered the bottom of a small pie plate with it to make a crust of sorts and then filled it up with the dairy mixture. It worked out fairly well as a lighter and faster version of quiche. It was also a decent way to use up the ends of bread loaves that accumulate on the counter because Dad always buys and starts a new loaf before finishing the old one.

Gelato- because… well no reason really, I just like gelato. This one was peach, apricot, lime and ginger, (if I couldn’t put it in the coconut ice cream, it was going somewhere!). The peaches were fresh from Niagara. You can’t really go wrong with gelato… of course I forgot to churn it, but these things happen to the best of us.

In other news my new favourite drink is Jamaican ginger beer. I love it. It’s especially good with fresh squeezed lime and dark rum. There’s that lime and ginger combination again, lately I want to put it in everything. Eventually I’ll run this flavour into the ground and get hooked on something else… Until that time it will be lime and ginger for everyone!

Today's pictures are: at top- a chocolate cheesecake with raspberry and mango topping (made for Dad on the day the sailboat went in the water), and below- a black forest cake with chocolate ganache and cherry ice cream for Mom's birthday.

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Ice Cream, Or Something Like It

I've been playing around with ice cream making lately. I was motivated to do this on a particularly hot day when I remembered making homemade ice cream many moons ago, (around 4380 moons if you want a number, our ice cream machine hasn’t been used in at least a decade and I’m gauging even more than that). I remember it tasting completely different from anything I'd ever had from the store. It was creamier, richer and it had depth. We used to keep fresh made ice cream (while it lasted) in an old margarine container and I would sneak spoonfuls of it from the freezer when no one else was around. Unfortunately, the ice cream maker seemed to be a novelty item that quickly fell into disuse in my house. The freezing tub took up too much space in the freezer and the whole thing was eventually packed into its box, not to be opened again until years later. It was never thrown out though and survived the move to a new house.

Up until a couple weeks ago it remained in its first landing spot- the basement, gathering dust on a shelf with a variety of other items, (extra kitchen tiles, pieces of a water bed that never got reassembled after the move, a foot spa, a coleman lantern, some old ski boots...). After having picked a flat of strawberries and being unsure of what to turn them into, I resurrected the ice cream maker for some good old fashioned strawberry ice cream. I was delighted to find that all of the pieces were in the box and even more delighted that the machine could still turn out a damn good spot of ice cream, just like when I was a kid. It was good, but not perfect. I didn’t churn the ice cream enough so it wasn’t as smooth as I would have liked it to be, but the flavour of the fresh strawberries more than made up for any inconsistencies in texture.

After getting off to such a great start, I was eager to make more ice cream. I decided to stick to the basics and make chocolate. I had bought some Mexican chocolate, but it turned out not to be the kind that I had been looking for (with cinnamon in it) and I made the ill-fated decision to use it in my ice cream. Not only was this chocolate not what I was looking for, but it was grainy, not really chocolately at all, and basically tasted like granulated sugar mixed with a little cocoa powder for colour. I don’t know why I thought this sub-par chocolate could be improved by turning it into ice cream. It could not. The ice cream turned out just like the chocolate from whence it came, grainy and decidedly lacking in chocolate flavour. This didn’t mean the end of my ice cream making though, I was learning valuable lessons: churn more often, don’t use inferior ingredients.

My third and most recent foray into ice cream making has been the most successful. At the Farmer’s Market last week Dad and I bought some white peaches. They seem to be a trend lately as we’d been hearing about them on quite a few cooking shows. August’s issue of Bon Appetit is also full of peach recipes so I had no shortage of ideas on what to do with them. I ended up not using any of the recipes I had already seen and instead invented some gelato. We were all out of cream and I had no intentions of going anywhere to buy some, (in my battle against making superfluous trips to town, I think I’m finally starting to win) so gelato was an easy choice as we had plenty of milk in the fridge. The peaches became quite ripe before I had gotten around to doing anything with them and I realized that if I didn’t use them almost immediately I would lose my chance. Into the blender went the peaches (pitted and peeled), with some milk, sugar, fresh picked raspberries, (I had gone berry picking with Mom) and grated ginger for a nice kick. From the blender the mixture went into the ice cream machine and then the freezer. I remembered to churn this one often and the results were great. The gelato is a rich raspberry colour and each of the flavours are easily distinguishable while at the same time complementary. Forget the normal flavours, experimenting with new flavours is where it’s at. I’m coming up with all sorts of ideas for future flavours, (and am open to suggestions) but my next ice cream will have to be cherry because it will be for Mom’s birthday. After that, all bets are off.

Flattened Foccacia

I decided to make foccacia tonight. I had been thinking about it for a while and when I was at the Farmer’s market on Tuesday I got some feta and roasted red pepper spread that I thought would be a suitable topping. The recipe I found was for the bread machine. It was a garlic foccacia, and that sounded good to me except I decided to substitute one cup of whole wheat flour for one of the cups of white flour. This usually isn’t that big of a deal. However, I have a reoccurring problem with our bread machine- All of the recipes I find for bread machines generally conclude with “add ingredients as per manufacturer’s instructions”. That’s all well and good for someone who still has the manufacturer’s instructions or for someone who read them at some point, but neither of those describe my current situation. This means that every time I use the bread machine I wonder if things are going to turn out the way I want them to. In general, they haven’t and I’m beginning to suspect that I should do some searching for the bread machine manual or just resume making bread the old fashioned way, without a machine. Some mistakes however, are not due to a faulty recipe or a lack of manufacturer’s instructions but just straight up human error. I threw all of the ingredients in the bread machine on the dough cycle and hoped for the best. When the machine beeped at the end of the dough cycle, I took it out, put it on a floured surface, as I had been instructed to do and attempted to shape it into two rectangles. I was supposed to then let the dough rise and bake it on a stone in the oven. When I turned it out my dough seemed a little dense, there didn’t appear to be enough of it to form two rectangles. This was a little odd, but stranger things have happened, I decided shapes didn’t matter and formed one big circle then put it on a pizza tray to rise. I returned to my dough some time later, expecting it to have risen and to be ready to pop into the oven. It was sitting on the tray, just as flat as I’d left it. Hmm. Not impressed. Maybe it was the substitution of whole wheat flour that was the problem, sometimes whole wheat flour takes longer to rise. I decided to leave it a little while longer. When I came back to check on my dough, this time determined to put it in the long ago pre-heated oven, it was still flat as a pancake. Maybe it would rise in the oven? I put it in. When the buzzer went off I looked in at my slightly inflated, (though by no means risen) “foccacia,” it was still pale and didn’t seem to have any colour to it. I decided it wasn’t done and left it in. I did this two more times before deciding that I was just going to garnish it the way it was, hopefully the addition of feta spread and olives would save it. I was so annoyed with the thing at this point that I didn’t even want to try it. Mom eventually took care of that for me and sliced into the flat bread. It was dense and chewy, the opposite of foccacia. I still couldn’t figure out what exactly the problem had been but was beginning to think that it couldn’t possibly be me, it must be the lack of manufacturer’s instructions. I thought that I must be missing one key piece of information. Dad walked into the kitchen and provided me with that missing piece of information. He took one look at my flattened foccacia and announced “There’s no yeast in that.” Sure enough, Dad was right. I’m an idiot and forgot to add the yeast. Sometimes you just can’t win.

Cherries: From the Tree To Your Table and My Tummy

Summer means the arrival of lots of readily available, fresh local fruit, the best of which could very well be cherries. I may be slightly biased in this regard as I have spent every cherry season of my entire life in my Grandparents cherry orchard, picking, sorting and selling cherries. This is where I have been for the past week, sorting through basket after basket of cherries, removing the bad ones, eating the best ones and putting the good ones into baskets for customers. The orchard is small and family run. There are 34 trees which produce a variety of Bing cherries (the big, sweet, dark ones) as well as 3 trees of Oxhearts and Victors (a semi-sweet white cherry with a touch of pink, some people think they’re sour, those people are not cherry connoisseurs).

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The pickers begin as early as sun rise to avoid the heat and are usually finished by lunch time. Since I wasn’t picking I got to sleep into about 6:30am, when I would get up, have breakfast (I enjoyed fresh raspberries on my cereal because they’re in season too) and then start sorting. Sorting cherries requires both an eye and a feel for bad cherries. There are a number of clues that give away a bad cherry in a bunch. Juice on your hands is a clear sign that something’s wrong. If a cherry feels soft, there’s reason to suspect foul play. Missing stems are simply a reason to pop it in your mouth because without the stem the life span of a cherry decreases dramatically. These are some of the reasons for a cherry not to make it into a customer’s basket, but a split should not be one of them. A cherry split that has dried is perfectly edible. In fact, the splits are some of the sweetest cherries there are. A split has occurred for one of 2 reasons, both of which have to do with rain. A very heavy rain can cause cherries to split from sheer impact, cherries are delicate after all, (which reminds me- DON’T squeeze cherries and then tell me they’re soft, they weren’t soft until you squeezed them, don’t do it). The second reason is that the cherries have soaked up the rain from the roots and have become so swollen and juicy that they’ve split their skin. After the rain clears and the cherries are dried up, some of them will have splits and although they may not be as pretty as their peers, the garbage is definitely not where they should end up. Many people are not aware of this and complain when they see a split in a basket, now that you’re enlightened on the issue embrace the split cherry and quit complaining about it. So, back to my day of sorting and selling… If there were cherries leftover from the day before I would sort them first and then move onto the incoming baskets. We never sold cherries that were more than a day old.

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Being the cherry snob that I am, I rarely eat cherries that have been off the tree for more than 24 hours, and certainly never eat cherries that come from the grocery store and have been sitting on a truck for God only knows how long... The only exception to the 24 hour rule are the frozen cherries that I snack on in the winter, but I put them into the freezer within 24 hours of being off the tree. The reason for my cherry snobbery is simple: I’ve tasted the best and I won’t lower my standards to eat sub-par cherries. Plucked straight off the branch, cherries are firmer, crunchier and have better flavour than anything else. They taste great in both desserts and main courses, but I must confess that although I have good intentions they rarely last long enough for me to turn them into anything. This year I froze a bunch of the white cherries to make into jam one day when I’m bored, you don’t see cherry jam around enough. I’m also tempted to make a cherry yogurt cake like the rhubarb one I made a while ago and I’ve already made a pie. Cherries are amazing in pies all on their own or with other fruit. The one I whipped up was cherry-raspberry-strawberry, all fresh picked. It was summer in a pie.

Dessert wasn’t the only thing I was making, but not everything involved cherries. I volunteered to cook dinner for the family every night as this let me escape the tediousness of sorting for a few hours. I was cooking dinners for a bigger group than I usually do. The number of people ranged from 8 to 15 depending on the night. The ‘go big or go home’ mentality was quite useful in this situation. I made lasagna, (ginger and spinach are nice additions) pork tenderloin, (dry rubbed and then done on the bbq) green salads every night (with lettuce, raspberries and parsley fresh from the garden) tabbouleh, (my Grandma never quite got the name right) ribs, (clearly my dad had a hand in this one, we used a recipe from the latest Food & Drink magazine from the LCBO) Asian chicken stirfry (with soba noodles), a bbq’d roast, (more experimenting with dry rubs) salmon (marinated in soy and maple syrup) and a heap of other side dishes and appetizers. Cherry season however, did not allow for time to write about any of this. After my break to cook dinner I would return to the stand, sorting and selling cherries until 9pm when I was exhausted and ready for bed. But it’s tradition, and summer wouldn’t be the same without cherry season. The first night that I was back home I was missing the cherries already and sautéed turkey breast with a cherry and balsamic vinegar sauce. Fruit and meat are an excellent combination and summer’s the ideal time to test out new pairings. Eat fresh, eat local, eat well.

The Magic of Mushrooms

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When I was a kid I hated mushrooms, they were slimy and I wouldn’t eat them. There were two exceptions: morels and puffballs. Both of these are hunting mushrooms. They didn’t come from the grocery store, they came from my backyard and surrounding areas. Every year, when it was time, my parents and I would go out in search of morels. Morels always come up in the same places, so if you know where those places are, you’ll be set for years to come. But just because you know where the morels should be, doesn’t mean they’re easy to find. You need a morel finding stick, it will pull you in the direction of the good morels. There’s no set size or shape for a morel finding stick, you’ll know when you find a good one, it’ll just feel right. In my morel hunting experience, the only place the morel stick couldn’t help was in the sand dunes under the tamarack trees. Here you needed to get on your hands and knees and crawl under the soft tamarack branches. This is all part of the hunt, it’s ok to get dirty, you’re hunting! There’s also a certain amount of pride in being the one to find the first morel. When I found the first one, I wouldn’t just pluck it from the ground, I would call Dad over to gloat and to let him find it too, (you’d be surprised how long you can stare at one spot without seeing the morels that are there), after he saw it he would take out his little silver pocket knife and hand it to me so that I could gently cut off the morel at its base. Then I would cup it in my hand, bring it up to my nose and inhale deeply. Fresh morels have a wonderful earthy smell. It’s a throwback to my childhood every time I smell one. Some days a morel hunt would only yield half a dozen mushrooms, other days we would come home with a plastic bag full of them. When this happened we’d lay them on racks on the deck for the sun to dry them so that they could be stored in a big glass jar for use all year round until next season arrived.

We used to find puffballs in the meadows behind my house. Puffball hunts are very different from morel hunts. An enormous morel is probably no more than 4 inches tall and this would be a rare find, worthy of the record books. Morels are hard to see, they’re brown, blend into their surroundings and I swear they hide while you’re anywhere near them and then pop up when you turn your back. The only way puffballs would be hard to see is if you mistook one for a soccer ball. Puffballs are BIG and white and generally stand out from a flat surrounding. I remember one occasion when we came home with 4 huge puffballs, some bigger than basketballs. We delighted friends by bringing them fresh puffball, of course we then had to instruct most of them on how to eat it, but they were thrilled nonetheless. The best way to eat puffball is to throw some butter in a frying pan and while it’s heating up, slice the puffball into steaks. When the butter’s hot, throw on a slice of puffball, let it brown up on one side, flip it over, brown the other side, put it on a plate and enjoy. Mmmmm puffball, the steak of mushrooms.

Overtime my palate has evolved and I now enjoy all sorts of mushrooms although I still have a penchant towards the exotic as opposed to the button mushrooms you find in the supermarket. The thing about mushrooms is, they’re not like tomatoes which are easy to grow and anyone can do it. Mushrooms are tricky. Mycologists have figured out how to cultivate most types of mushrooms, but some, like the morel are still only found in the wild. In fact, there are people who devote their lives to mushroom hunting, traveling the along the West coast from Canada down into the States chasing morel season in an attempt to keep a constant supply available to people with lots of money, (such a delicacy doesn’t come cheap) and fancy restaurants. A friend of the family is a mycologist and although he hasn’t figured out the secret of the morel, he does cultivate a number of other exotic type mushrooms. A recent visit to his place resulted in a basket full of shiitakis, beeches, and white, yellow and pink (!) oyster mushrooms. The last time I had a variety of mushrooms like this I made mushroom pirogies and they were so tasty that I had to make them again. The last time I made them I had more patience and actually made the pirogi dough myself. This time I was more concerned with just getting them made so that I could eat them, so I cheated and used wonton wrappers. This was way faster and although I couldn’t claim to have made everything myself, they were still pretty good. The filling was simple, I wanted the mushrooms flavour to be the focus so I just blended them lightly with some chopped garlic and onion and then sautéed them in butter. Once they were browned I added in some cream and white wine and simmered that down. I let the mixture cool and then used it to fill the wonton wrappers. I had a few spoonfuls leftover which I mixed into eggs the next morning. It works on so many levels.

Don’t let plain mushrooms distract from all the goodness that different varieties of mushrooms offer. Grocery stores have started stocking more than just the button mushrooms and the other kinds, although probably slightly more expensive, are worth trying out.

A Little Candied Orange Peel Goes A Long Way

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Mom needed another cake to bring to school for someone’s birthday, I was happy to take care of that for her. Searching for a recipe on I came across an orange-almond cake with chocolate icing, giddyup. The recipe seemed straightforward enough, a little time consuming maybe, but that’s clearly not a concern of mine. It was a triple layer cake so I needed 3 round baking pans. I know we have 3 of these pans because I’ve used them before, (recently, for the checkerboard cake) but after a good 10 minutes of tearing the cupboards apart I was starting to be convinced that someone had stolen the third pan. I had found the first two no problem, but the third one was missing. As far as I could recall the three of them used to be buddies, they were always together, like musketeers or something. In the good old days they’d get all battered up, hang out in the oven, then hit the cupboard for an after party… (Some things seem funnier the first time you write them, but I’m still not deleting that.) After going through all the places I thought the third pan could be, and in the process opening all of the cupboard doors, and leaving them open, I sat on the floor in the middle of the kitchen and hoped the pan would come to me. It did not. Instead, the open doors attracted my cat who likes to explore. I got up, shut them and started to get ingredients out to make the cake anyways. I figured if I had to, I would bake the third layer in one of the first two pans after they were done, it would just be an extra and unnecessary step, and I don’t like that. While putting away some dishes to clear space on the counter I found the third pan, I absolutely hate when things aren’t in their place.

After a slow start, I was sailing through making the cake batter; crushing almonds, peeling and juicing oranges, beating eggs, things were going fairly well.

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I got through making the batter and putting the layers into the oven, but in the process I ran out of sugar and I still had to make an orange glaze and the chocolate icing. I was also out of butter and eggs. Being out of eggs wasn’t a big deal because I didn’t need any more for this project, but it was something to think about so far as breakfast was concerned. After waiting for the layers to come out of the oven I got in the car and headed to the store. Let me elaborate on this- I live in the country, the grocery store is not right around the corner and I didn’t feel like going all the way into town, so I only went as far as the closest country convenience store. I picked up sugar, eggs and a scratch ticket for Dad, (we didn’t win). I got back into the kitchen, looked at my recipe and decided to make the icing first because it needed to cool. The icing required butter. As I said already, there was no more butter and you will note that on my trip to the store I didn’t get any butter, (I had gotten distracted by the scratch ticket). Annoyed, I got back in the car. As you can imagine, the convenience store I was going to was no Whole Foods. When I got there I found out that they had 1 type of butter, it was overpriced and it was salted. My recipe called for unsalted butter. Does it really matter? Did I really care at this point? The girl at the counter was laughing at me for being back so soon, I took my salted butter and left.

Back at home I was finally able to get on with the cake construction. I made the icing with the salted butter and stuck it in the fridge to set. I thought that because it had lots of tasty things in it like whipping cream and premium chocolate, that it would be fine, you probably wouldn’t even notice the salt. I dipped my finger in to give it a try, it seemed a little off, but I told myself that it just needed to set, it would be ok. While I waited for that to cool I had to make an orange syrup to spread over each layer. The orange syrup was made from fresh squeezed orange juice, reduced with sugar. I ended up with way more than was necessary, but I saved the leftovers because I was also going to be making candied orange peel to decorate the top of the cake and this would add extra flavour. The recipe said to use store bought candied peel, but I didn’t have any of that and there was no way I was going back to the store (not that they’d have it, and we already know how I feel about having to go into town) so I thought I’d just make my own. Well I ended up making enough candied orange peel to feed an army, or if not an army, at least to make 2 other desserts, more on that later. Once the chocolate icing had set a little it still tasted funny, and by funny I mean salty. I added orange syrup and sugar until it worked itself out. In the end the orange-almond chocolate cake dressed up quite nicely once I had all the pieces together and the candied orange peel really was a nice touch.

The leftover orange peel then became the inspiration to make walnut-orange biscotti dipped in chocolate. Biscotti is not something I’ve made before, but Dad likes it so I thought I’d give it a go. It’s actually pretty easy to make and the whole baking it twice thing wasn’t a big deal, (for those of you who don’t know, biscotti is Italian and literally means ‘twice baked’). The only problem I had with it was the chocolate dipping, my chocolate was being weird, (what else is new?) I don’t know why, but at least this stuff wasn’t salty. I ended up leaving some undipped. If anyone asks, I meant to do it that way.

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Even after the biscotti there was still more candied orange peel. What to do? There were some strawberries on the counter that needed to be used up, and there’s an endless supply of rhubarb running rampant in the garden. By now you should know where I’m going with this- Pie time. For my own entertainment the rhubarb pies are always a little bit different, this one has the candied orange peel, strawberries and cookie cutter decoration on top, I like personalizing pies. Later today I’ll be delivering this pie to a friend of mine who’s leaving to New Zealand for the year. Maybe I should go with her, the kiwis need pie too, and who am I to deny them? They’ve given us great wine and lamb, it’s about time we started giving back. Think of it as improving international relations. Anyone who would like to finance this trip for me, for the sake of world peace, is welcome to do so.

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Father's Day

Father’s Day is a special day and as such a special dinner was required. My Dad’s side of the family is from the East coast so we’ve always got an underlying lobster craving, and special occasions are the perfect time to satisfy this craving. Lobster eating is a spectacle, hands on and interactive, different from any other edible undertaking. At what other time is it acceptable to dismember your food at the table? If you’ve never experienced this before, my heart breaks for you. Allow me to explain. Begin by pulling some lobster from the ocean. What? You don’t live on the ocean with lobster crawling into your traps? Yeah, me neither, but it’s nice to dream. Begin with a giant pot of boiling water, salt it liberally, don’t be afraid of salt, there should be enough to float an egg. Into the pot you drop the live lobster, they must be alive and kicking (or pinching) right up until the time they hit the water. Supermarket lobster will do, so long as they’re fresh. While waiting for the water to boil you can amuse the children by letting the lobster crawl on the kitchen floor, let them name their favourite one, (Pinchy is always popular). When it’s time, remove the rubber bands from their claws, pick them up by the tail so you don’t get pinched and drop ‘em in the pot. Don’t even think of putting them in with the rubber bands still holding their claws shut, nobody likes the taste of rubber, this is a surefire way to ruin your feast. Just before the lobster’s done, set the table with bowls of melted butter for dipping and empty bowls to hold the shells, lobster bibs are optional. A lobster feast in its purest form should be done straight up with butter, nothing else is needed. Usually someone is put in charge of cracking the claws open with a big cleaver, everything else can be done by hand or with the aid of a good pair of kitchen shears. Once the heaping plate of whole lobsters is set on the table conversation ceases and the serious part begins. Lobster deconstruction is an art form. It takes years to master and you’ve got to be worked in properly. When I was little, my parents and grandparents would give me all of their legs as they devoured claws, tails and bodies, moving on to their second and third lobsters. I would spend the entire meal sucking and chewing on the lobster legs, determined to get all of the meat out. Hours of work probably didn’t even equal the amount of meat in one tail, but it kept me busy. It was an excellent tactic on the part of my parents because the legs were something I could work at on my own- they didn’t require any cutting or breaking of the shell, something my small hands couldn’t do. And as long as I was working on the legs I couldn’t pester them to break shells for me, thus interrupting their lobster eating. As I got older and hungrier I began to learn to guard my claws and tail and not to be distracted for a second lest they be swiped from my plate and replaced with legs. With time, practice and imitation I learned first how to push the tail out of the shell with a fork and then later how to excavate the meat without any tools by squeezing the shell with one hand, cracking it, making it easy to pop out the treasure inside. Of course I still took the time to get the meat out of the legs, but I also realized that the tail and the claws were so much less work and resulted in far greater rewards. Once you’ve got the meat out of the claws and tail, it’s butter time baby, (as an aside, should you ever find yourself at The Keg, having ordered the Surf ‘n Turf, it’s good to know that the lobster butter can be used for everything, everything). Dunk the lobster in the warm butter, don’t be shy, no one is watching, it’s ok if it drips, it’ll do that. Take time to savour the flavour. Mmmmm lobster… The intricacies of dissecting the body eluded me until well into my lobster eating career. You have to know the one part of the lobster that you can’t eat and how to avoid it. I usually skipped this task, my Dad took care of it for me, he then usually took care of eating all the good parts too, but at the time I thought it was for my own safety. Now that I know better I like to save the body of my lobster for a sandwich the next day.

In the rare event of leftovers, a lobster sandwich on crusty Italian bread is heavenly. Leftovers generally only occur when someone is exercising some restraint (rare) or when they’re on their 3rd lobster and are too lazy to get the meat out of the body. Some people neglect the bodies, don’t even bother with them. These people make me sick. The best sandwiches are made from the meat cleaned out of the bodies and mixed with the “red stuff”, (female lobster) or “green stuff”, (male lobster), or ideally a combination of all three along with a little mayo, some tomato slices and lettuce. There’s no need to get fancy, you want that lobster flavour to shine through.
But back to Father’s Day, once you’ve had a meal as rich as lobster, why stop there? For dessert I made my first pecan pie. My Dad made a comment about wanting one the other day so I decided to indulge him. The pie was actually pretty straight forward. Pecan pies are sort of like giant butter tarts, I imagine whoever invented the pecan pie had tried to make tarts and realized that small things weren’t worth doing, they might even have though to themselves “go big or go home!”. I tweaked the recipe a bit by adding maple syrup. I also wasted my time neatly arranging the pecans into a design before adding the filling, they floated randomly to the surface with no evidence that a design ever existed. I told myself it was abstract.

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*For documentation’s sake, I made 2 rhubarb pies today with lattice tops for the Lions Club, the stuff just keeps on growing. I threw in some apricots because I can never just leave things the way they are.

Baking for Mom- More Uses for Rhubarb

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Not everything turns out the way I plan it to, or the way I think it will in my head. My Mom needed something to bring to a potluck and I volunteered to make it for her. This was a potluck in the traditional sense in that no one had been told specifically to bring a salad or a main or a dessert, they were just going to make do with whatever people brought. If there were 12 chocolate cakes, so be it, that’s what they would eat. I liked that as it gave me the freedom to basically make whatever I wanted. I had previously prepared a checkerboard cake with chocolate ganache for this same group so I thought I had to come up with something that would rival that.

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I was blanking on ideas though because seriously, that checkerboard cake was pretty hard to top, (note to self- start with simple things and then everything that follows will look better, if you start at the top there’s nowhere to go but down). Mom suggested I make another rhubarb pie, I’ve kinda been on a roll with those so at least I knew it would probably turn out alright. I thought I’d 'kick it up a notch' by making little tarts so that everyone got their own. I thought it would look cute. I now know why my Mom never really bothered with making tarts, they take forever. It’s like I completely forgot my own instructions to go big or go home. Tarts are for sissies, I should have made an enormous pie. A pie so big that I would also have had to construct a super sized pie plate and bonfire to cook it over because no oven could hold this sucker. Instead I wasted away hours trying to cut out tart shells and fit them into those finicky, overly bendy silver tart shells. Not wanting to take even more of my time trying to put a pastry crust on the top I used the same sour cream, brown sugar and oatmeal mixture that I had put on the pies for the principles dinner instead. Before going into the oven they looked alright and I thought maybe my hard work wasn’t done in vain. I wasn’t really sure how long the tarts should be in the oven, less time that the pies, but how much less? I kept an eye on them, but got distracted while writing my spinach pasta blog, (and forgetting to add the pictures that I talked about taking). As a result, the tarts bubbled everywhere, all over the sides. Some of the tops got a little dark, but even as this was happening the pastry part wasn’t quite done. I tried to prevent more burning on top by covering them in tinfoil. The outcome was not the cute, perfect little individual pies that I had imagined. The edges were all gooey, some of them looked slightly burnt and they all looked messy. This was not sophisticated. This was nowhere near the caliber of a chocolate checkerboard cake. They tasted alright, but as half the eating is done with the eyes, I was not overly impressed with myself.

I guess part of my problem may have been that I was working on a deadline and simultaneously making a strawberry yogurt rhubarb cake, (we’ve got rhubarb coming out of our ears, I’ve got to use it up somehow). This was also for my Mom, for some meeting she had the next day. I had to get both done before 1pm and didn’t start them early enough. Also, as I’m a procrastinator, I had a lot to do in very little time, didn’t think about how long things would take to bake, and was trying to do 9 other things, completely unrelated to baking all at the same time. I got the yogurt cake done first and based on the taste of the batter I was happy with how I thought it would turn out. The problem with cakes though is that you can’t taste the final product before serving it, so all my hope was that the awesomeness of the batter would remain after baking, (past experience says it does not always happen like this). Coming out of the oven the cake smelled and looked good so I set it aside to cool while I finished with the tarts. I got impatient though and tried to take the cake out of the mold too early. Don’t do that. It broke in two. I should have taken this as a sign that not to get my hopes up for the tarts. Good news on the cake though, since it was going to be used as a snack at the meeting it was going to be cut up and put out on a plate to serve so no one was ever going to know about its imperfections. For my own satisfaction I stuck it back together to take the final picture.

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My Mom saved me a piece and I can attest to the fact it was actually very good too, surprisingly fluffy, almost like an angel food cake. The strawberry yogurt rhubarb cake, (which needs an acronym or something) will be made many times before I try to do something stupid like tarts again. Go big or go home. Remember that.

Doing Things the Old Fashioned Way

Another day, another culinary adventure! I’m not lazy and unemployed, I’m adventuring! Adventuring today included mowing the lawn. Seeing as though I’m living here for free with no plans of leaving in the immediate future, the least I can do is clean up and make dinner. Mowing the lawn took over an hour and a half, on a ride on mower… I didn’t tackle the portion that I have to do with the push mower, I’ve got to save some fun for tomorrow. I’d like to think of this as an educational blog so here’s a special tip for the kids: on a sunny day, it is not advisable to wear a sleeveless shirt, listening to your iPod with your armband, unless your goal is to make your upper arm look like a cheap Canadian flag tattoo. Lesson learned.

Anyways, onto the cooking. I decided to make fresh pasta today. I thought it would be a nice treat for my parents because other than someone who’s unemployed, who really has the time to make fresh pasta? Since I have never made fresh pasta before I thought I’d skip the usual beginner step of making plain pasta and go right on ahead to the flavoured stuff. Why not? Being limited by what was in the fridge, spinach pasta was my flavour of choice. The recipe I found had a food processor option, I chose to forgo it and make the pasta by hand. It looked like more fun, you got to play with dough and make a mess. Due to the fact that I made the dough my hand, I thought I could cheat a little with the shaping of the pasta. Actually, I don’t consider it cheating, I was testing out a new kitchen tool, experimenting, learning alternatives. My dad had received a pasta roller-outer (I’m sure it has a real name, but I’m not overly concerned with what it is) for his birthday last year and it wasn’t something I had used before. I don’t know how much easier it made my job anyways. The pasta roller-outer is a great tool, but it requires two sets of hands. They make it look like an easy individual process on the box. This is not so, unless you have go-go-gadget arms, and at least three of them. I needed one hand to turn the crank, one hand to feed the dough through the presser and then the cutter and another hand to catch the pasta so that it didn’t end up on the floor. This required some acrobatics on my part, and I wouldn’t say that gymnastics are exactly my forte. Some of it ended up on the floor. 3 second rule. Eventually I found a system that worked and I was becoming quite proficient by the end of it, (ok, maybe dad came home and provided an extra set of hands, but let’s not argue over the exact details).

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Following my first couple blogs, there has been some question as to whether or not I’m actually making this stuff or if I just have an active imagination. Pictures were requested as proof, and rightly so. Sticky hands, dead camera batteries and forgetfulness will sometimes get in the way of picture taking, but I’ll see what I can do. I was so proud of myself today that I took a few pictures of my pasta making process, but then I forgot to take a picture of the final plated product, which was actually quite pretty with the green pasta covered in a red sauce. Speaking of which, the sauce was what I like to call a rummage recipe. I rummaged around the kitchen to see what I could find to make a decent sauce. This led to the writing of a grocery list, but also a surprisingly pleasant sauce which consisted of garlic, onion, green pepper, sundried tomato (the garden was overrun with tomatoes last year and we’re still eating them), crushed tomatoes, proscuitto, white wine, (a splash for you, a splash for me) oregano, rosemary and thyme. Super.

A Catered Affair

This past Saturday I catered a 13 person event. This seems less impressive when it’s revealed that it was for a group of principles, one of whom was my mom, and the dinner was at my house. Nevertheless, I did do almost all of the cooking for it. I say almost because my Dad is somewhat of a gourmet chef himself and he was keen on doing something on the BBQ. We started planning about a week in advance, trying to figure out a menu. For a while we were set on ribs. Big racks of ribs. Racks of wonderfully sticky, tender, fall off the bone ribs. Then my Mom questioned our menu choice, commenting on how messy ribs were. That was enough to banish them from the menu and result in my Dad making daily remarks about how good ribs were, how much he wanted ribs and how everyone was doing ribs but us, (and by everyone he was referring to Rob Rainford and Bobby Flay… you can’t beat the FoodNetwork), but fine, if Mom didn’t want ribs, there would be NO ribs. Instead, pork loin was decided upon as a suitable alternative, with chicken for those who didn’t want pork, (3 pork loins and 6 pounds of chicken to be precise, go big or go home). The final menu was as follows:

Appetizers: Sausage, cheese and almond puffs, shrimp cold rolls.

Main: BBQ’d pork loin and chicken. Honey mustard potato salad and a romaine salad with veggies to accompany.

Dessert: Peach rhubarb pie and rhubarb pie with brown sugar, sour cream and oatmeal crumble toppings.

But of course, the pork and chicken couldn’t all be done the same, and plain old bbq sauce was not going to cut it. My Dad bbqs all year round. You want a steak in January when it’s minus 20 degrees out? We do it up right, on the bbq. This meant I had to come up with a few different marinades. I’ve been wanting to try making jerk chicken for a while, so now was the time. 16 ingredients and a food processor later, I had my jerk sauce. I am sorry to say however, that I had to wuss out on the heat factor, including the scotch bonnet peppers because apparently not everyone can handle spicey. Seeing as though this was not my party, I figured I had better try to please the masses, (this also led to deciding on the title of a future blog- It’s my party and I’ll spice if I want to). The end result was a sauce that was quite good in all respects, very flavourful, but I couldn’t really call it jerk sauce. It went over well with the principles though, and I guess that’s all that matters. I also whipped up some “magic dust” for a dry rub on one of the pork loins, courtesy of Bon Appetit magazine, (along with Gourmet magazine, my literary equivalent of the FoodNetwork). The magic dust also had a fairly lengthy ingredient list, including paprika, dry mustard, and sugar among others. Finally, for those fearing intense flavour, a marinade of roasted tomatoes was doused on some chicken. All of this was put on the night before, to give plenty of time for the marinades and meat to become good friends. Same deal for the potato salad, it always tastes better the next day. Saturday I made pies in the morning, with rhubarb from our garden, (because like Chef at Home always says, using ingredients that are in season is the secret to great food). No matter how many times I make pie crust, it always seems to turn out differently. The odds of it turning out just the way I want it to are slightly better than winning the lottery. Luck was on my side Saturday and I was fairly happy with the result, (no dice on the lottery ticket, I accept donations…). Finishing the pies early gave me enough time to go into town and buy a new bike. My previous one was 13 years old and made from leftover parts of my brother’s bikes, I deserved a new bike… But I digress. The afternoon was devoted to appetizers. I’ve made sausage, cheese and almonds puffs quite a few times, they’re always a hit and they’re easy to make, done. What took hours, literally, were the shrimp cold rolls which consisted of shrimp, mango, red pepper, bean sprouts, vermicelli noodles, green onions and carrots rolled up in a rice paper wrapper. I started by chopping everything up and setting it out like an assembly line. Then the rice papers needed to be soaked in water to soften them, but before being able to roll them I had to dry them off enough that everything didn’t just slide out. This was an exercise to test my patience. I would have probably quit much earlier, but the principles started to arrive and this gave me an excuse to stay in the kitchen instead of having to socialize. I’m happy to cook for them but that’s where my part of the hospitality ends.

The evening on the whole was a success and of course there were leftovers, because like I said, go big or go home and we went big. This meant Sunday night was a repeat of Saturday, minus the principles and with the addition of my parents’ friends the Quiggies. It’s Mr. Quiggies birthday later this week and as he’s quite fond of chocolate I made a chocolate layer cake with strawberries and maple whipped cream.

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I got the recipe out of a cocoa cookbook and the method was just weird. There was no butter/margarine/shortening, only a tablespoon of oil and the eggs were supposed to be beat in 1 by 1 after the flour and dry ingredients had been added. Well by the time I had added all of the flour I had a big clump of batter, thicker than any cookie dough. For those of you who aren’t in the habit of making cakes, this is not the way your batter should be, ever. My electric beaters were not prepared to handle this and the process of beating in the eggs, individually was a difficult one to say the least, peppered with curses and lots of spatula work, (or was it spatula work and lots of curses?). Eventually I ended up with a batter that resembled a fudgey brownie consistency (and tasted much the same, as my repeated sampling confirmed) which I poured into the cake pans, popped in the oven and hoped for the best. I then sat down to “clean” out the bowl… Much to my amazement, the cakes rose and the process of putting it together with strawberries and maple syrup whipped cream went along just swimmingly. Another success!

My dad is still complaining about the lack of ribs.

And So It Begins...

I’m not going to lie, I used to think that people who wrote blogs were a little weird, maybe a lot weird. And since I don’t like being wrong, I will continue to think that, with one addition- “people who write blogs are weird*”. The asterisk is the important part, it lets me add important information like: *Except for people who have interesting things to say, like me. Do I actually have interesting things to say? A conversation with Len convinced me that I do, and even if I don’t, I can fake it and my blog will still be more interesting than most peoples.
Anyways, back to the birth of the blog… 4 years ago, at the outset of my University education, I realized that it probably wouldn’t get me anywhere. Today, I can confirm that. Therefore, it was with no job and no prospects that I was complaining about how I needed something to do, something that would make me money, something that I didn’t hate. I like to cook, I like to eat. I like to read about other people who like to cook and eat. I had just read about a woman who also liked to cook and eat who had undertaken a yearlong project to recreate every recipe in Julia Childs’ cookbook The Art of Mastering French Cooking. Along the way she wrote a blog about it which led to a book deal. The book deal led to the end of her working as a secretary. Len deemed this to be my ticket to success as well. Cook, eat, write about it. Clearly, it’s just that easy. And so my blog begins…