Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Yogurt Bran Muffins

Let's see how the folks at Canadian Living measure up to those crafty people at Kraft, shall we?

Well, I'm back to attempting desserts or dessert-esque recipes, at least for this one. It's been a long stretch of mostly dinners so I thought I'd try something different. The muffins are still cooling on the rack so I don't yet know how they taste, but they sure smell good! Better still, using the oven heated up my place a bit so I'm no longer freezing.

Does anyone have any use for about 400g of bran? Not the cereal, the flaky stuff that looks like what my hamster and gerbil used to sleep in. I seem to have a lot of it left, but that was the only size available at the grocery. Oh well, I guess I'll be very regular for an indefinite period of time.

I did quite well with this recipe, taste-test notwithstanding. The only part I need to improve would be the end, where it says to PRESS the remaining apricot pieces into the muffin batter. If you don't read that part like me, and simply drop them on top of the batter, they will burn and you'll have to pick them off before you take a photo of your otherwise masterful product.

A word here: The recipe says it makes 12 muffins, and to fill the muffin cups 3/4 full. Not so much if your muffin pans are like mine. I rewrote the recipe to say "Fill the muffin cups to heaping because you have a ton of batter".

Tomorrow, I have to return an extra bag of oats (different recipe - I was planning ahead but didn't realize I already had some), a surplus container of baking powder (found some in the cupboard while trying to find the muffin pan liners), and figure out how I ended up with 4 boxes of baking soda, all in different parts of the kitchen.

: Yum! These muffins are good. They're nice and moist inside, and mine was still warm when I ate it. I don't, however, recommend eating too many in a day, seeing as the recipe has both bran and apricots in it - two ingredients known for helping to um, "regulate" your GI tract. I once ate a couple of handfuls of dried apricots in about a 10 minute span and paid the price for hours. I had no friends that day...

Monday, September 28, 2009

Cuban Black Bean Soup

Since I'm not Cuban, don't think I know anyone who is Cuban, and didn't eat black bean soup when I was in Cuba, I can't vouch for the authenticity of the title of this recipe. I can, however, tell you that, regardless of nationality, the end product is currently making my belly happy.

Finally, a recipe that wasn't too hard to make! The most PITA part was chopping the bloody onion, primarily because I'm still quite slow at it (I chop each wretched onion into wee tiny pieces because I don't like eating onion), and because my eyes always sting and tear up which makes using my cute but sharp paring knife more dangerous.

A horrid thing happened to me on my way to buy the ingredients at lunchtime today: I set out with my raincoat on, expecting some precipitation although the computer said it was simply cloudy and windy. I never know what the actual outside conditions are before I get there because I slave, er work in a windowless cave in the basement of a hospital and I don't smoke. Anyway, off I went and sure enough, it was raining a bit. No matter. What did matter was the sudden downpour complete with hail (HAIL!!!) that started out of the blue when I was halfway to the grocery across the street. I trudged for a bit, soaked through from mid-thigh downward and shivering, then finally admitted defeat and returned to get my car keys. I knew I couldn't work for another 2 hours or so with soaked pants and water in my shoes. I quickly went home (in the sunshine!) to change, but as I was waiting to turn left at the light to return to work, the car ahead of me turned for some bizarre reason right into the path of a car coming straight. SMASH!! Oh geez, this is terrible! I didn't know what to do. The two drivers seemed to be ok, not so much the cars, and there were a bunch of people running to help so I went back to work, but am still somewhat shaken up. If there's a bright side, at least they were right outside the hospital and I heard 2 ambulances coming within a minute or two.

This time, I bought fresh garlic, I used the sodium-reduced chicken stock, and I substituted a few shakes of paprika for the cumin since I didn't have any cumin and have 2 containers of paprika. They're similar, aren't they? Well, they are now. As evidenced by the "artistic" smiley face in the photo above, I used the fat-free sour cream lounging in the fridge for decoration and to cool the soup down a bit. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go get another serving, mmm.....

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Stir-Fried Chicken with Broccoli

I'm typing this while listening to the little boy across the street throw a giant temper tantrum at top volume. He's inside his house, I'm inside my place, and still his anger reaches my ears. I'm not sure if this is the same fit I watched him throw on their driveway a couple of hours ago, but I suspect they're probably related if this is a new one. He was very dramatic, all doubled over and holding his head while screaming. It was highly entertaining to watch out the window while the onions cooked.

I need to learn to throw cooking caution to the wind. Why? Because my version of this recipe should be called "Stir-Fried Chicken with Mushy Broccoli". I cook things too much with too much caution. After figuring out the hard way that I should have blanched the broccoli first as the recipe directs, I proceeded to do so carefully. I don't blanch much. Nor do I know how to brown cashews. More on that later.

The recipe said that the broccoli or cauliflower needed to be cooked until it browned and was tender, but not mushy. First of all, I was using broccoli because it was on sale and the cauliflower wasn't. Secondly, in my experience including tonight, broccoli doesn't "brown" unless it's burning. This was my mistake. I kept waiting for it to brown past the suggested 5 minute mark which resulted in eventual overcooking by the end of the recipe. Alas...

I did cook the chicken thoroughly, and even managed to put on a pot with rice to start cooking at the same time. I'm venturing into scary new territory here. Cooking pasta? No problem. Cooking rice? Aiyee! Too finicky, too easy to mess up. Thus I have avoided cooking it (the long way, no instant here) all these years. But I'm a big girl now so I had to try. Funny things happen when you're checking Facebook while waiting for the chicken to de-pink itself, and the rice to come to a boil: the rice comes to a boil very silently. This you will not notice until you are stirring the chicken and trying to remember if the other pot on the stove is clean or dirty. Crap! Turn down heat, set timer, and DON'T TOUCH! I stir everything, but the box does not say "stir the rice", so I leave it alone. It ended up kind of mushy but I cooked it some more on low and pretended the problem was fixed.

I omitted the ginger in this recipe because I don't like fresh ginger. I only like ginger snap cookies and gingerbread people/houses, but the recipe didn't say I could substitute with those unfortunately. I also didn't put in the scallions because a) I didn't know what they are while grocery shopping and forgot to Google them ahead of time, and b) they weren't where I looked in the produce section when I figured they were probably some kind of perishable vegetable thing. I also didn't add the sugar or cornstarch, I used water instead of opening a can of stock, the hoisin sauce was scrapped because I didn't feel like looking high and low for it at the store only to never use it again, and the garlic was a bit of a disaster.

I should probably mince the garlic ahead of time in the future. I'll go one step further and check it for quality before going grocery shopping too. I looked and saw that I had 3 white bundles of it while making my list, but neglected to use my xray vision to see that the cloves inside were almost all gnarly and inedible. I did manage to extract a teeny bit with a ridiculous amount of mess and effort but I question whether it was worthwhile. I'm switching to the cubes of garlic.

In the end, the stir fry is pretty tasty and completely edible. You just won't have to chew it much. It looks pretty jaundiced in the photo, but is not quite so scary in real life. The cashews probably would not have been so um, squishy? if I'd roasted them first. I opted out of doing so because I didn't know how, but I've got some suggestions in hand now. Next time, next time. At least no one will get salmon poisoning from my well-cooked chicken.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Baked Macaroni and Cheese

Today is a day for comfort food. I'm tired and cranky and it's raining. I finally hauled out my copy of "How to Cook Everything" and so it begins.

In retrospect, I think the next time I make this one, I will not use skim milk as I usually do for most recipes needing milk. My sauce never really thickened to the point that I suspect it was supposed to, even after I hastily added extra cheddar cheese and flour. I was also a little heavy-handed on the bread crumb topping even though the recipe said I could add more than 1/2 cup. Altogether, the end product is somewhat dry and crumbly, compared to how I've had variations of it before. It's still edible though it will require some extra sauce to fix the problem. Bah.

I think I need to get a kitchen scale soon. This cookbook likes to measure things like dry pasta in weight. I measure everything in cups or spoons. I also use the liquid measuring cups for dry ingredients even though I know I'm supposed to use the slidey tower thing for dry stuff. I had to ask some friends how to convert from weight to cups, and in the end, I threw in the whole box of whole wheat macaroni. That sounds familiar.

This recipe also generates one heck of a lot of dishes! That doesn't even count the two pots and the grater that I had to wash before I could use them. 3 pots, 1 grater, 1 bowl, 1 colander, measuring spoons, measuring cup, 3 demitasse cups....geez! It's going to be a long night at the sink.

A word of advice: 2 1/2 cups of milk don't really fit into a 2 cup measuring cup, even with that extra section above the 2 cup line. Trust me. You'll still be pouring ever so carefully when you'll suddenly notice the milk streaming out the spout onto the counter. Then, after you stem the flow and wipe the floor in addition to the counter, you'll get the bright idea of transferring the milk to one of those large glasses in the cupboard. Bad idea. It's actually smaller than the 2 cup measuring cup. Then, after you wipe up even more spilled milk and contemplate crying about it, you'll momentarily berate yourself for not using the 4 cup measuring cup in the first place, instead of thinking you'd save it for the cheese.

Cooks beware! If, like me, you really haven't cooked with flour much before (cake mixes out of a box don't count, fyi), prepare to be shocked when you start adding the milk in teeny batches to your cooked flour/butter goo. The milk will hit the pan, start sizzling, and immediately turn everything into gross lumps of yuck, at which point you'll feel like crying (again) because you'll be sure you've just wrecked the recipe. Just keep stirring, just keep stirring, just keep stirring! If you've obeyed the cookbook and only added about 1/4 cup of milk, if you stir long enough with your wisk, it will smooth out, shortly after which your panic will start to subside. They tell you to add the milk in small batches for a reason, and take it from the Queen of "Look, I don't need instructions!", you should follow the recipe this time.

Like I said previously, I added extra cheese and flour to my non-thickening sauce, pretty much to no avail. Stupid fat-free dairy products. Hrmph. I also added a couple of pinches of dry mustard, just so that I could feel virtuous about being able to randomly add those "pinches" and "dashes" of ingredients that so many people do without thinking. I don't really know if it added any flavour to the recipe, but that's not the point, is it? I did get a little annoyed with myself when I put the mustard in its new home above the stove, only to stare blankly at a large package of dry mustard I'd bought some time previously and forgotten all about. I need to stop feeling creative in the spice section of the grocery store.

Speaking of feeling creative, if looks could maim, my iPod surely would have shriveled under the glare it got from me when it took some creative liberties with the "shuffle" setting and started playing "Same Mistake" by James Blunt. Haha, very funny. Just because I'm making macaroni again, I am NOT making the same Sponge Bob macaroni mistake. I lunged at it later when it started playing a song whose lyrics entail "I need a miracle, I need a miracle". Honestly! Am I that bad in the kitchen that even my iPod is trying to communicate it to me?

Postscript: Next time, I will try my cousin Deanna's suggestion of using undiluted skim evaporated milk for the dairy. I will probably also use regular macaroni instead of whole wheat as they behave differently enough to want to try the other.
I ended up making a second batch of sauce last night, and after unrooting the original version from the glass baking dish and unceremoniously dumping it in a bowl, I mixed in the new sauce and shoved the whole mess in the oven for about 5 minutes. I just tried it for lunch today (with ketchup) and it's edible but not as smooth as I would have liked. I also managed to grate my knuckle while struggling with the second batch of cheese sauce. Not impressed.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Beef Noodle Bowl

Recipe #9: http://www.kraftcanada.com/en/recipes/beef-noodle-bowl-91752.aspx

I hate beef. Not enough to do the vegetarian thing again but it's seriously annoying me today. I don't mind eating it, I just hate shopping for it and cooking it. I'm hopeless when it comes to knowing my dead animal parts. The Meatatarian has tried numerous times to explain them to me and make suggestions, but the information only seems to stay in my brain until I exit the store. I need a chart. Preferably in pink with stickers. Seems to work for other things.

Take, for example, the beef sirloin steak from this recipe that I'm supposed to cut into strips. Sure, sounds easy enough....until I hit the carnivore section at the grocery store on my lunch today. Searching, searching, searching, nothing says "beef sirloin steak" and I AM in the beef section. I checked that first. Ok, I'm not buying something that says "marinate" on the label, nor am I buying organs *shudder*. Oh, here's something that looks kind of flattish (easy to cut says my brain) and it's marked at $2.00 off the package. Doesn't weigh enough but here's another so I'll take two Inside Round Grilling Medallions, whatever the hell those are. To borrow an idea: Beef. It's what's for dinner.

I'm becoming a bit of a recipe junky. I've got way more recipes than time, energy, or inclination to make. I've become a little addicted to searching them out and mulling them over while mentally tallying how much work they sound like and whether I'd have to buy a bunch of ingredients I won't use again. I've done the latter enough times already to be wiser now. My mom has kindly been sending this blog to my grandma out in BC who recently wondered aloud if I ever used the recipe book she gave me 9 years ago, "How to Cook Everything" by Mark Bittman. Sorry Grandma, I haven't forgotten the book, just trying to kick my Kraft dependency right now. I will graduate to the book soon.

This time I've got all the ingredients already on hand (except the cow) and what I'm missing or don't like, I'll deal with when I get there. Water on to boil for pasta, begin tedious process of hacking helpless vegetables into a mound. No measuring this time. 3 cups of broccoli equals however much broccoli is left in the fridge. 2 cups of carrots equals however many baby carrots are left in the bag. Doesn't seem to add up to much and, since vegetables are good for me (ugly rumour going around), I chuck in the rest of the bag of frozen peas and carrots. At this rate, I'll have night vision as good as an owl with all the carrots I'm eating. There, now I've more room in the fridge and freezer.

While the pasta is cooking and the vegetables are waiting their turn, it's time to hack the alien beef product into strips. Trusty yellow paring knife? Check. Bigger (clean) cutting board? Check. All my fingers intact? Check. Ok, this is starting to look like an awfully big pile of moo-ness and my "large non-stick skillet" aka the pot I use for everything looks awfully small. Think fast! Ok, I'll cook the meat in batches. Then I'll know it's all cooked thoroughly.

Drain pasta/veggie combo, rescue some broccoli and peas that tumble into the sink when the full colander suddenly shifts on top of a teetering pile of unwashed dishes. Return mess to pot, continue cooking endless strips of beef. Finally add in salad dressing, search fridge and discover no teriyaki sauce is in residence. I'll use that Lea & Perrins stuff I call "rooster sauce". I won't, however, dump it in at the same measuring that the teriyaki sauce is supposed to be at. What if they taste drastically different? What if the rooster sauce and the salad dressing don't get along? Better start gradual. Omit the ginger because I don't like and won't buy it. Stir, stir, stir. Throw in a drained can of mushrooms with great gusto. This is supposed to be thickening. Sure, looks thicker if you squinch your eyes up really tight. I'm too tired and hungry to care. Slop everything into a bowl, put the phone call on speakerphone, attempt to stir it together.

Well, this recipe is pretty healthy overall albeit it fairly bland, even for me who grew up in the House of Bland and gets a runny nose with mild wings. I probably should have added more rooster sauce, or actually used the teriyaki that was subsequently discovered at the back of the fridge later. I used whole wheat pasta, fat-free salad dressing, and a lot of vegetables.

Then I made triple chunk chocolate brownies from a mix that uses a 1/2 cup of oil. Because I can.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Simple Mac 'n Ham

Recipe #8: http://www.kraftcanada.com/en/recipes/simple-mac-n-ham-87293.aspx

I've hit recipe rock-bottom. I made something with Kraft Dinner. It was Spongebob Squarepants KD if that's any consolation. Not because I'm a Spongebob fan, but simply because it was on sale at Target the other day. I hang my head in humiliation.

Today was another rush-rush day so I needed a quick recipe that would not require a trip to the grocery store. I was also looking for one to help use up the sour cream taking up space in the fridge without having to make more pea soup which was the reason I bought the sour cream in the first place.

I really need to stop doing so many things at once. Everything was going well until the Word document I was working on suddenly decided to type my work in red with underline. What the heck? I hit something by accident, but without any idea what exactly I'd done, I wasn't able to fix this problem on my own. The person receiving the document is UBER finicky about formatting so I couldn't suddenly hand in something that had 1/3 red underlined text in it. What to do? Quick email to cousin Jenny, a bit of searching in Word, and suddenly my problem is gone. Thanks Jenny! You saved that one.

In the meantime, while my computer was rebooting (first attempt to fix Word problem on my own), I decided to maximize my time and start the KD Disaster as I call it. Haul out the trusty pot, take ingredients out of fridge and freezer. Minimal counter space that I have looks like my fridge vomited on it. I didn't have the ham that the recipe called for so I took some suspicious looking frozen chicken sandwich meat thing-ness out of the freezer and jerry-thawed it in a bowl of hot water. Desperate times call for desperate measures and some improv.

Back to check email, try the suggestions from Jenny, heave large sigh of relief that document is no longer buggered. Now that I've no time to keep working on it, back to the kitchen. Here's where I run into some stress. I'm trying to make a recipe that says to make something from how the box of it tells you to make it. That's cheating. Now I'm making two recipes in one. I bet those sly Kraft people had a good laugh at that one.

So while making the KD on the stove (uber slow method for me), I'm trying to figure out what I need to prep for the rest of the recipe. Oh, I can add broccoli instead of peas? Heck, I have both! More vegetables are better for me, right? So now I'm hacking broccoli and trying to figure out when to add it to the water. Ok, 4 minutes from the end of cooking. Wait. When's the end of the cooking? Damn. Minimum suggested cooking time is 12 minutes, minus 4 is 8 minutes which is what I set the timer for.

Back to computer, mess around some more, return to kitchen and finish trying to get rid of mess on counter. Timer goes, broccoli goes in, reset timer for another 2 minutes for peas. Why are you setting the time for 2 minutes, you might ask. Did I mention I'm easily distracted? Enough said. This time, I only dropped 3 peas on the floor. It's an improvement, especially over the rice that landed there last week.

Drain green and noodle mess, now which recipe am I on? Still need to add the milk, fake cheese, and close-to-a-raincoat-according-to-some margarine. Lucky for me, I figured out without the help of the above recipe that I had to drain the pasta sludge before adding everything else. Ha! There's no fooling me anymore. Slop in sour cream, dump 2 cups of mostly thawed, hacked up, scary-feeling chicken product and stir. It's not pretty but it's what's for dinner.

Overall, not too bad in taste. The chicken meat stuff has an odd rubbery, slightly firm texture that I'm not completely fond of, but if you eat it quickly and read something while eating, you probably won't notice too much. The recipe is also kind of bland but I'm not good enough yet to suggest anything beyond black pepper to fix that. I used skim milk too which may or may not have influenced taste and texture. Like I said, eat it fast with distractions...

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Quick & Creamy Chicken Stew

Recipe #7: http://www.kraftcanada.com/en/recipes/quick-creamy-chicken-stew-95389.aspx

I know it's been a few days since I attempted something blog-worthy. Will you accept the excuse of a busy week gone a little crazy? I also figured that opening a can of mushroom soup and adding milk was not something that you'd want to read a blog entry about.

Today I finally had the time to make a recipe I picked out earlier in the week. I spent part of the morning watching my cousin-in-law Ted playing in a provincial slopitch tourney down the highway. Since I usually only see my family at the cottage in the summer, or at Christmas and Easter in the winter, it was a nice chance to chat a bit more with him. We talked about New Zealand (I'm headed there in Feb 2010 - see Travel Diaries blog, he played rugby there), the differences between his slopitch league (men's, better skill) and mine (co-ed, wreck, er rec players who are in it just for fun), some of the wild and exciting plays made by his team, their hilarious trip to a bar in London last night. He even made appropriate noises of interest when I mentioned how excited I was to watch twin lambs being born at the Western Fair last night. It's a bit hard to impress a guy whose parents have a sheep farm.

Since my meatatarian friend was coming over for dinner tonight, I figured I had better make the broccoli soup recipe earlier in the week and save the chicken one for tonight. You'll note those jokesters at Kraft have the total time for this particular recipe pegged out at 25 minutes. I still don't know where they come up with these numbers, but I suspect they have some fun in the process. I timed myself this time and came in at about 50 minutes, plus time afterward to make a salad. Double the Kraft projected time... yep, seems about right to me. I had awarded myself an hour so I guess I'm improving?

This is the first time I've cooked potatoes in the microwave. I got smart at the Superstore this week and only bought enough potatoes to make the dish so that I wouldn't be stuck with half a bag later and end up eating potato salad for days. I didn't quarter mine as the recipe says but I did take my own advice and try to cut them up all about the same size so that they would cook equally quickly. Chop potatoes into dish, get bigger dish from cupboard and accidently scratch arm on sharp door catch in the process. Set microwave for 7 minutes, start assembling rest of ingredients, wince when hot water from potato lid drips on bare foot, reset potatoes for another 3 minutes, wrestle hot, slippery potato piece out of dish, set microwave to cook another 1.5 minutes.

While the potatoes were taking their sweet time in the nuker, it was time to rip the bones from the chicken breasts. I could have saved myself some effort and just bought the boneless chicken but this package was already the right weight and cheaper. I'm sure there's a more refined way to dig the bones out of cold, slimey, slippery-as-hell chicken but my default setting is smash, followed by brute force, so I just dug in and hacked the bones out with my trusty yellow paring knife. If you don't tell, then no one will know.

Things are progressing well, thanks in part to my iPod having randomly chosen a good mix of songs to cook by. Nothing like some Euro Pop and Eighties stuff to get the body moving around the kitchen. Added chicken to pot without burning myself, had just enough salad dressing, I'm making more room in the fridge by finishing up the cream cheese too. Stop long enough to pick rogue, mashed, half-frozen pea off foot, wash the cutting board and knife vigourously while visions of salmonella poisoning dance in my head.

Stir it all together, looks pretty gloppy but fairly close to the recipe picture thankfully. In case you were wondering by the photos I've taken, yes I (almost) always use the same pot. It's my version of the "medium saucepan" that the recipes often call for. It also cleans easily. Stir in cream cheese, looks slightly less gloppy. I used plain cream cheese because I only ever eat it on crackers, and I wouldn't eat herb & garlic cream cheese on crackers which means I'd be stuck with 2/3 of a container in a flavour I don't normally buy. Instead, I had a Julia Child moment and added a couple of shakes of paprika, quickly stirring it in before I could evaluate the intelligence of that decision.

Well, I'm about to dine now. I'll have to weigh in on taste later. Wish me luck that my guest and I don't show up in Emerg overnight. I have a coffee date with some friends in the morning.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

No Cream Creamy Broccoli Soup

I'm hot. As in overheating. Can I finally say I've slaved over a hot stove??

Here's how this soup came to be finished at 8:50pm today: Work all day, come home to change. Set off on scooter for trip to chiropractor and grocery store. Wage mental war with brain over how much chicken to buy if the future recipe calls for 1 lb but the bird bits are sold in kg. Debate whether to ask someone, decide to wing it rather than risk embarrassment. No pun intended. Price compare the rice, find $10 on the floor in the bakery area. Ride scooter home in spitting rain. Unpack groceries, eat quick snack, rush off in car to free Pilates class. Stop at grocery again on way home because my quick snack finished my carrot supply which was not plentiful like I thought it was. Home in pouring rain to start cooking. Make mental note to tell Kraft their prep and total times in their recipes are wildly fanciful. I always end up taking at least twice as long, not on purpose.

I'm getting a little better at chopping onions, carrots, and celery which seem to be in every soup recipe. Not great or very fast but I haven't needed stiches yet although I did alter the shape of my thumbnail with a different knife at the cottage last Saturday. I still harbour a mild fear of my trusty yellow paring knife and you can forget using the scary big knives!

Sizzle, sizzle, sizzle. Cook, you mound of vegetables! But not too fast because I'm busy chopping endless amounts of broccoli. Bye-bye, end of the chicken stock from last week. Darn it, how does this stupid box of rice open? Oops, rice avalanche. Make mental note to sweep gritty floor and wipe gritty counter later.

This time when I blend, I know how much to put in the blender. I also have my trusty oven mitt on the hand holding down the lid, and I force myself into that patient thing so that the soup blends without leaving chunks of vegetables when I pour it into the bowl. Blend, pour, yawn, scrape, tell caller to give me 20 more minutes, blend, pour...

Back in the pot to add the dairy. Curse self for having to open new bag of milk. Can't find 1/4 cup measuring thingy, use 1/3 cup and figure not to fill it completely with cheese. End up not filling completely but then violently shaking end of parmesan cheese container directly into pot. Forget this stupid measuring!

Look mutely at pot which seems identical to previous pea soup attempt. Carefully venture taste, tell myself there IS a difference. Vaguely wonder how I am going to tell the soups apart in the freezer. Rearrange fridge, stash pot of soup, remove pot from fridge for photo opportunity, return pot to fridge, check email, yawn. I'll eat the soup for lunch tomorrow. I'm too tired to taste it right now.

Things I learned:

1) Don't cook hungry. This is not a new lesson.

2) If you use the entire broccoli like I did, cut the stem pieces up very small and peel them. Turns out the outer layer remains fairly hard and crunchy when your soup is supposed to be "simmering until the vegetables are tender". The blender will help but don't rely on it completely.

3) Don't make this recipe with camouflage broccoli. You'll be glad to know I used fresh this time.

4) Throwing pieces of carrot, celery, and onion into the pot with the hot oil to avoid getting burned like last time will still result in minor burns.

5) Even if you do a sinkful of dishes while your soup is cooking, you will still have another sinkful of dishes to do by the time you are finished. Don't do the second batch. Go to bed!

P.S - The soup is actually green. I took a crappy photo in crappy lighting.
P.P.S - The soup is good! Just make sure you blend the parmesan cheese in well. Mine's kind of lumpy...

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Great Canadian Potato Salad

Recipe #5: http://www.kraftcanada.com/en/recipes/great-canadian-potato-salad-84988.aspx

I'm not sure what makes this recipe "Canadian" other than the fact that my eggs and potatoes were from Canada. Are Canadians known for their love of potato salad? Anyway, I ended up doing this recipe because I was eager to use up the half bag of potatoes left over from my pea soup recipe.

Taking my own advice, I didn't buy any ingredients for this recipe. What I didn't have on hand, I scrounged from my mom and my aunt Corry. How did I manage to get ingredients from two women who live at least 2.5 hours from me? I took my one woman cooking school show on the road! Yep, I kicked my cast iron cooking skills up a notch by doing this recipe at the cottage.

Cooking at the cottage always presents a extra edge of challenge:
1) - the kitchen is small and often crowded. Our family shares the cottage with my aunt/uncle/cousins/cousin-in-law/cousin's girlfriend/small dog, and we're often all hungry at the same time. From years of experience, we usually do the kitchen dance quite well but sometimes things get squishy.
2) - the pots & pans and bowls are often a charming melange of cast offs and "gently used" stuff that have been replaced with upgrades at home so they've been moved to the cottage. This translates to "recipe calls for medium bowl but I'll need to use what's available". It takes improv cooking skills to a new level of fun.
3) - the cottage is on an island and the closest grocery store is on the mainland, about a 15 minute drive away. This = bring everything you'll need, keep a mental inventory of what's already up there, and beg the neighbours for items that you realize with growing horror got left at home.

As is becoming usual, I made a few modifications to this recipe: I didn't measure the potatoes! I know, I can hear your gasp of shock. Instead, I just dumped all of the potatoes I had (ended up being about 6 cups instead of 4) in a big pot of water. After seeing my mother's celery seed (circa 1950s?), I balked and decided to use the vintage dill weed that my aunt Corry dug out of the cottage cupboard. She said it still had flavour and would be fine. She was right. I didn't have any sweet pickles so I finished the jar of sweet relish, hacked some kosher pickles into tiny pieces, then made up the balance in tangy relish. I also refused to add raw onion since I hate onion and have only recently forced myself to add it to soups that are getting thoroughly cooked. There you have it.

Overall, this recipe wasn't too bad. Certainly I didn't burn my hand blending it, or sob uncontrollably while chopping onion with an eye infection. Nor was I overwhelmed when the recipe didn't say at what temperature to cook the potatoes. Luckily, Corry and my culinary-wise cousin Jenny helped me out a lot with that dilemma. Here's what to do in case you too start to panic: put all of your potatoes, whole, with the skin on, in a big pot and fill to covering them with water. Put the stove burner on high to bring the pot to a boil, then turn the temperature down to 5 (if you're at my cottage) to maintain a low boil. The potatoes should stay at a low boil until they are "fork-tender". Admittedly, I struggled to apply the "fork-tender" advice which resulted in some potato dissection by my mom, followed by sampling a hot potato to see if it tasted too starchy. Yep, too starchy, back in the pot with you, whench. A few rounds of this circus and the final exasperated decision was to let it boil for 5 more minutes then take it off the stove no matter what happens. I lasted 3.5 minutes. At this point, the eggs were also in the potato pot. I had (carefully) chucked them in there to boil close to when the potatoes would be finished. 2 ingredients, 1 pot, fewer dishes. I'm happy.

While the potatoes were taking their sweet time getting ready, I mixed up the rest of the ingredients in a bowl and let it sit in the fridge to blend the flavours. You'll notice this contradicts the instructions from Kraft. I sided with my aunt in the Corry vs. Kraft epic. Once the potatoes and eggs had sat in the fridge for a while (and I had unsuccessfully tried to have a nap), my aunt and I cut them all up into small bite-size pieces, after which I gently blended them with the sauce, using a wooden spoon. You don't want to savagely mash the mixture together because then it will turn blobby and gross, and you'll be stuck with it all because no one else will want to try it.

End result? Jenny gave it 5 forks up (means it's also vegetarian-friendly as long as you eat eggs), the rest of the family who tried it agreed that it was quite tasty and good. No one died or got sick either, at least they didn't before I left an hour later... I've already had some for breakfast today with no ill effects.

Friday, September 4, 2009

The Ultimate Salad Recipe

This recipe is an informal one. It stems from my college student days where I took a lot of salad to school for lunch because pasta was too difficult to reheat. My friends would always marvel at my salads and asked me what I put in them. It always varies but I like to use whatever's handy most times which can lead to some odd additions. If I were to make the "ultimate" salad with every ingredient available, here's what I'd put in it:

alfalfa sprouts
chick peas
a hard-boiled egg
cheddar cheese
apple pieces
mandarin orange sections (the canned ones, drained)
spring mix lettuce
raw spinach
green or red seedless grapes
dill pickle pieces
sunflower seeds
pine nuts
pieces of ham
pieces of pear (the less ripe the better)
pieces of chicken
whole wheat rotini pasta (cooked and drained)
green beans
bean sprouts
snow peas

That's one heck of a salad! What's your favourite combination?

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Slow Food

We've all had experiences with slow food: pots that don't boil no matter how much you will them to with your Jedi mind tricks, frozen stuff that seems to take forever to thaw when you're starving because you forgot to thaw it ahead of time, glacial service in restaurants like I had with my friend Janice on the weekend. But there's a particular kind of slow food that I googled in a moment of curious boredom today.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slow_Food I heard about the Slow Food movement from my friend Ivano a while back. He's got an interest in it, no doubt in part because he's an Italian chef and the movement started in Italy. Ivano likes to think that Italy is the centre of the universe. I always sigh and correct him gently: Toronto is. Then he insists that Toronto just copied Italy. We laugh a lot.

Anyway, I found the objectives of the Slow Food movement to be pretty interesting. I like the idea behind it and the message it conveys. I'm just too cheap, rushed, and lazy at this point to undertake it much on my own. To me, the slow way to make Kraft Dinner is on the stove and that takes too long.

Luckily in London (ON), there are some good places to get locally grown/made goods, often year-round. For anyone familiar with the St. Lawrence Market in Toronto: http://www.stlawrencemarket.com/ , London has their own version in the Covent Garden Market downtown: http://www.coventmarket.com/

I'm hoping to go apple picking near here in a few weeks which, if the stars align themselves properly, could possibly yield me some apple pie, my favourite! I don't think I'll be the one baking it though. I've still got dessert from last week clogging up the fridge.

Here are some links for more information:

Anyone have their own experiences with the Slow Food movement?

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Rib Stickin' Bean & Barley Soup

Recipe #4: http://www.cookwithcampbells.ca/en-ca/Recipes/ribstickinbeanbarleysoup.aspx

Yes, we're back to the soup again. Maybe that will be my trend: soup, main course, dessert, repeat each week. Guess you'll just have to wait and see :)

Today's recipe is a Campbell's soup one from: http://www.cookwithcampbells.ca/en-ca/Home.aspx My copy is actually one that I tore out of a magazine while waiting for an oil change once but shhhh, that's our secret, ok? I found it in my recipe archives which is a folder that I have full of recipes I collect with every good intention of actually making, but usually I never get around to doing so and thus, they collect dust. Judging by the number of meatless recipes I've collected, I suspect some might even date back to my year-long fling with vegetarianism....when I was 15.

As far as soup recipe attempts go, I had a little more confidence going into this one than I did with my very first one. The ingredients are pretty straightforward, save for some confusion about the barley. I tried finding it at Sobey's but the guy I asked didn't know what or where it was, and when we finally found it, it was pot barley while the recipe calls for pearl barley. We looked at each other blankly when I asked if there was a difference between the two. Where is Google when I need it?! I finally found the correct barley at the Bulk Barn (btw, the Bulk Barn location at Masonville Place is gone so don't bother trying to shop there like I did), and figured out that pot barley takes longer to cook (essentially) so I bought the pearl as required.

Recipe mods: I used baby carrots that I already had instead of buying two carrots, I didn't use diced plum tomatoes, just regular diced tomatoes because I already had a can of them, I added extra celery, spinach, and the whole can of tomatoes, and I refused to pay more money for organic vegetable broth so I used regular (ok, cheaper) vegetable broth. Sue me.

Being the wiser cook that I am now, I knew to start heating the oil toward the end of my chopping of onion, carrot, and celery. For the record, chopping an onion with an eye infection sucks. Add items to pot, flinch when hot oil splatters upward and burns my arm, inadvertently fling some celery pieces across the room in the process, quickly add rest of vegetables to pot and stir. Start measuring tomatoes and barley (holy geez, I bought way too much), drain kidney beans into sink full of dishes from yesterday, make mental note to clear sink prior to cooking next time.

Stir onion/carrot/celery combo occasionally, wash some dishes and curse them for not washing themselves, carefully add liquid ingredients to pot with only minor splashing out, retrieve kidney bean from floor and find missing celery piece, shrug and chuck in rest of tomatoes in can. Tomatoes are good for me, right? Stir and wait for pot to come back to boil. Wash more dishes, run downstairs and change laundry over, pot still not boiling. Heat end of fettuccine alfredo, feel virtuous for adding 1/2 can of green beans to leftover pasta sludge, pot finally boiling. Reduce heat and eat lunch while checking email.

Finally time to add spinach, soup doesn't look too bad but there's an awful lot of it, hope that soup freezes well. Update blog (Dark Side of Cooking entry), do some online banking, finish lunch gone cold now. Check soup, burn face and mouth while checking to see if spinach is "tender", shrug and hope that my version of tender is the same as what the recipe intended. At suggestion from Cynthia, take photo of soup as well as one of Creme Caramel Squares to post to each blog.

I'm still full from finishing the pasta experiment from last week so I haven't tried the soup yet. I'm doing a pilates class tonight so the soup will be a good meal before that, probably along with salad to use up the spinach I bought today. I'll let you know how it turns out :)
Postscript: Soup is good! if you don't mind semi-crunchy carrots and celery in it. Looks like my idea of "tender" still needs a bit of work. No room for salad yet. That'll be lunch tomorrow with more soup.

The Dark Side of Cooking

Ha! You didn't know there is a dark side to cooking, did you? Well, I have discovered it and it's actually two-fold: the dishes and the leftover ingredients.

Once upon a time in the spring/summer/fall of 2003, I got a job washing dishes in a fancy-pants golf course kitchen. Yes, I was a dish bitch and no, I did not come up with that title. It was a hard job, especially on banquet or event nights where the dishes would come to me faster than I could hurl them into the dishwasher or quickly wash them in the sink, being sure to avoid the sharp knives cleverly chucked in there by the cooks when I wasn't looking. I made a whopping $9/hr + tips and I shared that wonderful job with two other guys who were still in high school. I think one didn't even have his driver's license yet. Let's just say I had at least a good decade on them and a lot more driving experience. The kitchen was on the top floor of the clubhouse which translates to "gets REALLY hot during the summer" so I spent a lot of time pretending to look for stuff in the giant fridge and freezer to cool myself off. I ate a lot of cookies, gained weight, and got laughed at by the cooking staff when I would make myself PB&J sandwiches for dinner. The chef and sous-chef were incapable of speaking a sentence without at least 6 curse words in it so I also gained a whole new vocabulary, much to the annoyance of my friends. I quit that job when I went back to school and I've had a whole new opinion on dishwashing since.

What the blasted recipes and recipe books don't tell you is that cooking or baking GENERATES A LOT OF DISHES! I'm not one of those people who has multiples of all my cooking implements so that I never need to suddenly realize that the dirty pot in the sink is the one I need RIGHT NOW and has to be washed in a hurry, oh wait, the pot on the stove is going to boil over and my hands are covered in dish soap, oh crap, the phone is ringing, ahhhhhH! I think I washed the same bowl about 4 times on Sunday while making my first dessert recipe (which I still have lots of in my fridge. Free to a good home..... please....). I find cooking by itself still stressful at this point. Add to that a giant pile of extra work and things get downright evil.

As I've slowly progressed to recipe #4 (post to follow), I've adapted my ways a bit. I no longer buy all the ingredients listed in the recipe if I don't have the exact same thing already at home. After 3 recipes and a fridge now carrying ingredient odds and ends that I don't normally eat much of (fat-free sour cream anyone? Can I interest you in some whipping cream? How about 1/3 of a tetrapak of reduced-sodium chicken stock? You can't tell me you don't want that in your home), I'm now looking more closely at my shelves before I shop. I'm a little out of my usual do-exactly-what-the-recipe-says-or-you'll-mess-it-up-for-life comfort zone, but I now have no idea what to do with the 1/2 bag of potatoes I bought for the pea soup last week. Today I managed to be ok with using my existing bag of baby carrots when the recipe wanted me to buy 2 large carrots (seriously, buy 2 carrots??) and I used diced tomatoes that weren't plum tomatoes (gasp!). So there, recipe!

Luckily for me, the Kraft Kitchens site has a search format where you can enter 3 ingredients that you have (on hand presumably) and it'll come up with ideas on how to use them. Wonder what one can make with potatoes, whipping cream, and chicken stock? Too bad there's no easy solution for the dishes...