Saturday, March 6, 2010

BUY: Pineapple

I love pineapple. No, wait, let me re-phrase ... I love FRESH pineapple. Can't say I've ever been a big fan of the canned stuff, or pineapple that has been added to a fruit cocktail in sugary syrup.

But fresh pineapple on the other hand - well I could it eat it every day. And sometimes do.

So, this post will focus on the fresh variety for a couple of reasons; 1) Some fine it intimidating to buy and "peel" so I'm hoping to de-mystify this process somewhat and 2) because this fruit is actually extremely versatile, healthy, and fun to have around.

These days, like most other tropical fruits, pineapple is virtually available all year round. In many cases they need to ripen further at home before they are ready to eat, but now that we are getting into Spring you'll find there to be more selection at a more reasonable price. They will also be slightly more ripe this time of year than in the dead of winter.

Any time I'm buying pineapple though, whether at it's peak of ripeness or not, I always search out the one with the best smell. You want the fruit to smell like a pineapple - even if it's still a little green, I've never had any issues with taste if I sought out the best "smelling" option. Then, if it's a little under ripe, I leave it on my counter for a few days. Again, I know it's ready to eat just by the smell. Once the aroma of pineapple starts to fill the room, it's ready to be cut into. Are there more scientific ways ways to determine ripeness you ask? Well, they say if you pull on one of the upper leaves and it comes out easily the pineapple is ripe - so you can go that route too if you like. But personally I like to follow my nose. If it smells like it's ready to eat it most usually is.

Now - how the hell do you get into it? I eat fresh pineapple so often "peeling" it is no big deal anymore, but I've actually talked to many people who say they have never bought this fruit because they just don't know what to do with it. So, here's a video that may help you if you are one of these people. This video was pretty straight-forward in my opinion, and it's pretty much how I go about it, except for one aspect. To remove the core instead cutting around it, I take the whole, peeled pineapple and slice it into quarters. Then, I simply slice down each quarter piece removing the core, rather than cutting around it as I go. But, to each their own. Once you find a method that works for you, it will take only minutes to get to that yummy flesh.

So, what to do with your freshly cut pineapple? More often than not in our house it is simply sliced and eaten. One sliced pineapple will last us two or three days and makes a really great snack. But, it certainly doesn't need to end there! Pineapple adds wonderful flavour to many dishes. One of it's best uses is actually as a marinade for meat! The juice of the pineapple will actually break down and tenderize meat - ideal for chicken and seafood. Also, grilled pineapple makes a unique and elegant dessert. Simply skewer large sections of pineapple, grill until sugars start to caramelize, and serve with vanilla ice cream and a drizzle of honey. At the end of a summer dinner party, this will blow your guests away!

As far as nutritional value goes, pineapples are very high in Vitamin C. It's also a good source of manganese. For a full breakdown of the nutritional value of see HERE. This is also where the above picture came from.

So, don't be afraid of a fresh pineapple! Yes, it takes a little more effort than an apple to eat, but adds a whole new dimension to your fruit tray, to your snacks, and to your cooking. Worth the try! You will find yourself to be a pineapple expert in no time!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Entertaining Your Family: Easy Muffins

One of my favorite afternoon snacks is a nice homemade, slightly warmed, buttered muffin. Rounded out with a cup of tea, it is comfort all around - especially in the colder months.

This is one of my favorite muffin recipes. Something about the almond extract adds a touch of elegance and a nice decadence not found in your typical blueberry or bran muffin.

In my house, we always have sour cream in the fridge, and we always seem to have sour cream that needs to be used up. My husband loves the stuff, I can't stand it (on it's own - in baking it is pure magic), and he can never seem to eat enough perogies or tacos to finish the container he insists I buy at every trip to the grocery store. No worries though - this recipe will make use of it (as do many quick bread recipes and even some cakes), and it helps to create a moist and tender muffin as a result!

I prefer to use fresh cranberries in this recipe, so that's how it is written. If you choose to use dried (which I did for this photo as a matter of fact because it was all I had on hand at the time), that works too. Just reduce the amount ever so slightly as the dried cranberries are much sweeter. Also, these make great use of any fresh cranberries you may have popped in your freezer after Thanksgiving! (See Cranberry Post for more info on freezing cranberries).

Cranberry Almond Muffins

1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter
1 cup sour cream
1 large egg
1/4 tsp almond extract
1 cup toasted almonds, roughly chopped
3/4 cup fresh cranberries, halved

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F, and butter twelve 1/3 cup muffin cups.

Into a bowl, sift together flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Melt butter, and in a small bowl whisk together with sour cream, egg, and almond extract. Stir butter mixture, almonds, and fresh cranberries into flour mixture until just combined (do not over mix). Divide batter among muffin cups and bake in middle of oven until golden and tester comes out clean, about 20 minutes.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

TIP: Turn your Peanut Butter Upside Down


Yup you read that right, but maybe I should backup a little so this makes more sense.

I love peanut butter. Not "have-it-everyday-on-toast-or-with-jelly" kinda love, but it is one of my favorite post-workout snacks, or when I'm starving for and afternoon munchie that's more "filling", it is pretty high on my go-to list. Usually, my vehicle of choice is a whole-wheat Stoned Wheat Thins cracker, and one or two does plenty to fill the void.

I am also not your typical Peanut Butter connoisseur because we didn't grow up on Kraft, Jiff, or Skippy. In fact, I think I can count on one hand how many times I've actually eaten Kraft peanut butter. My grandpa, when he was alive, actually used to make peanut butter. It was delicious. He roasted the peanuts, ground them up, and put a whole lot of love into each and every batch. When I wasn't at their house, my mom always bought natural peanut butter from wherever she could get it. Not all grocery stores carried it at the time, but health food stores certainly did. And to this day, it's still what I prefer. Peanut butter with just one ingredient - peanuts. As it should be in my opinion.

Currently, my absolute favorite peanut butter on the market is from Safeway, and it is from their "Organics" line (shown above). This one has two simple ingredients; peanuts, and a touch of sea salt. That bit of salt brings it from good to simply decadent. So good. If there is a Safeway in your area I highly recommend giving it a try. But really, natural peanut butter is available in all grocery stores now, so try whichever you can easily find.

Why go the all-natural route? Simple really. Peanut butter will naturally separate if made with only peanuts. All the natural peanut oil rises to the top and it has to be stirred back through the jar periodically (or usually right when you open it), to re-distribute it and return the butter back to it's spreadable state. Modern society thinks this is bit of nuisance (not going to lie to you - it is), and they've found a way to solve this problem. Peanut butter, such as Jiff or Skippy that is naturally "blended", requires hydrogenation. Meaning "bad fats" need to be added to stabilize the peanut butter and make it smooth and creamy. Now, some companies say that they use a minimal amount of trans fats to do this etc, etc, etc... All I can say is google it, and read the labels. Some brands even go as far as adding icing sugar into their peanut butter to further "enhance" the taste. But really, what's wrong with just plain peanuts? If you don't like them as is, eat something else in my opinion. It really should be that simple.

So, back to way I'm telling you to store it upside down. As alluded to above, one of the biggest nuisances of all-natural peanut butter, and one I've obviously dealt with my whole life is that it separates. It's a pain I do admit. What I've done in the past is open my fresh jar, taken a butter knife, and just gone to town stirring like mad until it resembled a more normal consistency. This would then last in the fridge until the jar was mostly gone, when I would realize that the last quarter of the jar was quite a bit thicker and drier than it had been in the beginning. I wrestled with this for a long time, trying different ways to get it stirred properly, until about 3 years ago when I learned the ULTIMATE trick. My mom was hosting out of town visitors that she didn't particularly like. Was finding it hard to come up with conversation topics, didn't share similar opinions on much of anything when she did, and kept thinking "who knew 2 days could last so long", when all of the sudden, out of the blue one of the guests said to her over tea "Do you know that if you store your peanut butter in the cupboard upside down for 2 or 3 weeks after you buy it, all the oil will start to run to the bottom of the jar re-distributing itself through the peanut butter."

What? Brilliant!!!!

I took it one step further - I realized that once I opened the jar, the little bit of air seemed to help speed up this process, so I stored it for the first week or so upside down in the fridge as well.

The beauty of this method? The separation of the oil actually happens fairly slowly. It will take quite a while for ALL the oil to accumulate on the bottom of the jar, but in the meantime, it is slowly running through the peanut butter and returning it to a better consistency. Similarly, when you turn the jar back upright after a few weeks, the oil is again moving very slowly through the jar and it will be weeks before it all collects on the top again (and by then the jar could have significantly less peanut butter in it as well).

It's great. No more stirring, no more peanut butter oil flying around the kitchen, and still a great tasting product that you can feel good about. Those are the kind of tips I like!!!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

BUY: Fresh Atlantic Lobster!

After a bit of a hiatus, I am back. Apologies for the delay in posting, but I will be back to every other week now, so stay tuned for some great things to come!

And, what better way to start blogging again than to talk about LOBSTER! A couple of weeks ago I had the honour and privilege of being invited to a Lobster Event here in Calgary. The event had been moving across Canada to show restaurateurs, food writers, and home cooks like me just how versatile this little crustacean can be, and how it shouldn't be intimidating to cook with it anymore!

Celebrity and award winning chef Ray Bear was on hand doing demos, and showing us how just one little lobster can easily create so many different dishes!

Having spent 4 years living on the east coast myself, I have surely had the pleasure of eating Lobster, but rarely do I eat it like this. Sure, I've frequented the odd Lobster boil, and I've certainly been there with butter dripping down my chin and on to my appropriately placed lobster bib as I dig into each morsel of succulent meat, breaking the shell into smithereens as I go. There's certainly nothing wrong with that - let me tell you. But, there are so many other ways to enjoy this delectable seafood!

Chef Bear's demo started with a few appetizers. Lobster stuffed with avocado anyone?

He then went on to demonstrate a few more outstanding dishes including Lobster and Bacon Mac & Cheese - a dish, admittedly, I was sceptical about. I mean how would you even taste the delicate lobster under all that cheese and bacon. Well, I was wrong (of course), and it was fabulous (of course)...

...and so was the lobster tempura (wow)......and the lobster skewers with Asian marinated beef tenderloin...
...and a refreshing lobster and citrus salad. There was more too, including lobster scalloped potatoes, lobster sushi, and a lobster and white wine pasta with mushrooms that I couldn't get enough of. Literally. I was wishing at that point that they would stop serving up these little sample plates, and bring bring out the full buffet and the pasta bowls already! It was that yummy.
If the idea of boiling those live lobsters to get at all this meat to ultimately make all these fab dishes intimidates you - don't worry. It kinda intimidates me too, and I don't do it very often. But, it's not that hard. If you know a good fish monger they will probably even cook it for you if you really can't bear the thought. And, as far as getting all that juicy meat out? Well, that's just part of the fun. Not to mention there are many different website you can hit with quick tutorials on how to best cook, and shell a lobster (including the one below). Sure, it's not something we would do everyday, but certainly something that's worth a try - even if only once an awhile. Get the kids involved even - they would love it!
For all the recipes above, click HERE. You will be inspired. Trust me.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Entertaining your Family: Pizzas on the Grill

So, my daughter just turned two. We decided to have a small birthday party for her, and invited a few of her little friends but really, it was mostly adults in attendance. So, what do you serve 3 two year olds and 8 adults that everyone will enjoy equally as much?


Who doesn't like pizza? I didn't want to go with take-out though (it's just not my thing), and my mom had just sent me a really great pizza crust recipe which meant there really wasn't much of an option - we had to make our own. Plus, I figured out a way to make it fairly easy on myself - cook them outside. This way, everyone could build their own pizza - cheese flying everywhere and all - but it wouldn't be too much of a mess in the kitchen. Then, we could just toss them onto the grill and not have to deal with a 500 plus degree oven in the middle of July. Brilliant right? Well,'s how it went...

I made the dough in advance, and had it rising just as guests were arriving. Then, I gave each "family" a crust which they could roll out and top with a variety of toppings that I had pre-cut and set out.

Here is the first pizza on the go...We decided that with everybody working to get their pizza ready we actually needed two stations - a crust rolling station and a topping station. Here is the birthday girl and her dad rolling out their pizza on the new "dough" station:And, here is a look at all the toppings set out. I was sure to include all the basics (pepperoni, green peppers, mushrooms, olives), but I also added some fun things as well like grilled Italian sausages, goat cheese, and pesto. Everyone used the toppings they liked best. Some even topped half the pizza with some ingredients and the other half with others.
Once everyone built their pizza, on the grill they went. Grilling them was a bit of an experiment that I had tested out a couple of weeks earlier to work out some of the kinks. I have a dual burner gas grill, and I found for this particular model the best way to grill the pizzas was to turn both burners up pretty high until the BBQ reached a temperature of at least 500 degrees. Then, working quite quickly at this point, I turned off one side of the grill, slid the pizza onto the side with no heat (you will need to make sure that pizzas are built on a well-floured surface, and you may need an extra pair of hands to ensure the whole thing slides smoothly onto the grill), and then I quickly closed the lid of the BBQ. I left the lid closed for a good 10 minutes before checking on the progress of the pizza. The pie is done when the crust if crunchy, slightly browned, and the cheese is bubbly. 10 - 14 minutes in total.

Unfortunately, by this point I was pretty busy with the party and didn't get a chance to snap any picture of the pizzas cooking, or the finished product. But, they turned out quite well. As with any party though, I would have done a few things differently if I were to do it again. Due to the fact I could only cook 1 pizza at a time, it took almost an hour and half before everyone had eaten. There were a couple of pizza crust leftover at the end that we made as "extras" for people to snack on, but in hindsight I would have made these first so that everyone could snack on pizza even before "theirs" had been cooked. If you have a bigger grill though, this problem could be easily solved (or of course they can always be cooked in the oven).

The crust though was fantastic. I love it, and will always have some in my freezer from now on. In fact, I don't think I can ever see myself using pre-made pizza crusts again. I do happen to like thin-crust pizzas though, so if a thicker, doughier crust is more your thing, this may not be the recipe for you.

Thin Crust Pizza Dough

1/4 teaspoon active dry yeast
1 1/4 cups warm water
4 cups bleached flour (I use half all-purpose, and half whole wheat)
2 teaspoons sea salt, fine
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more for bowl

1. Sprinkle yeast over water; let stand until yeast is creamy, 5 to 10 minutes. (If yeast does not appear creamy, discard and start over with new yeast.)

2. In large bowl, whisk together flour and salt; form a well in centre. Add yeast mixture and oil; stir until dough just comes together. Turn out dough onto a lightly floured work surface and knead vigorously for 10 minutes. Cover with a damp dishtowel and let rest for 10 minutes, then knead vigorously for 10 minutes more. Lightly oil a large bowl. Form dough into a ball, transfer to bowl and turn to lightly coat with oil. Cover bowl tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
Note: I did this step in my stand-mixer using the dough hook. I found it a lot easier than kneading by hand for that long

3. With dough still in bowl, punch down with your fist (dough will be stiff), then fold sides over one another, turn dough, tightly cover bowl again with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 4 hour or up to 24 hours.

4. Divide dough into 4 pieces; shape pieces into balls and place on a lightly floured work surface, leaving a few inches between balls. Loosely cover with a damp dishtowel (not terry cloth) and let rise at warm room temperature until doubled, about 2 hours (if skin forms on dough while rising, lightly spray surface with water).
Note: If you want to freeze a portion of your dough, I do so here. Simply divide your dough, and set aside what you are planning to use to rise, and freeze the rest. When you want to use the frozen dough, let it defrost in the fridge overnight, and then allow to rise for a few hours as detailed above.

5. If you have a pizza stone, heat it in the oven while the dough rises. Heat for at least 45 minutes before baking pizza in an oven set at between 500 and 550 degrees.
6. On a lightly floured surface, press each dough ball with your fingers to begin to shape into a round. Use a fist and hands to gently stretch the dough to a 10 - inch round. (A floured rolling pin can be used to help roll out dough). Working fairly quickly, add your toppings (pizza Margarita is nice and simple and will showcase this crust nicely). Slide onto pizza stone or onto a baking sheet, and bake until cheese is melted and bubbling in spots and edge of dough is crisp and golden, about 7 minutes.
I used 6 balls of dough for this recipe. I had two in the freezer from when I conducted my "experiment", and you honestly couldn't tell which was which. Freezing them turned out just fine.
So, if any of you are thinking of trying this out for your next party - drop me a line! Let me know how it worked for you! At the end of the day all of our guests enjoyed it (from kids to adults), which means it was a success in my books!

Monday, July 27, 2009

Tip: Take a summer vacation!

I am.

Well, I'm not really on "vacation" so much as I am traveling with my family visiting relatives in my hometown. I am still trying to work while I'm visiting, but I'm finding limited Internet, changes in our schedule, and keeping up with my "wired from all the attention from grandparents" toddler making it difficult to keep up with some of the extras - such as this blog. We are home for a short stint, then away again for a few days of "real" vacation, home again for a bit, then off to Mexico for a "big time real" vacation, and my sister's wedding at the end of August.

So, I am taking this opportunity to apologize in advance for not blogging as much as I should. But, I'm keeping track of some of the good ideas I'm coming across, and will be back with a vengeance in the fall.

In the meantime, I'm going to hint at my next post: Thin Crusts Pizzas on the BBQ! My daughter just had her second birthday, and I decided a "make your own pizza" party would be fun for all! It was! The best part (for me - the cleanup lady) was it was all outdoors. Minimal mess for maximum fun. I will post the recipe, some pictures of our party, and how you can execute it all yourself in the coming weeks.

Until then, enjoy the summer. Take dinner outside tonight and enjoy some time in the yard. It won't last forever and come fall, you'll be glad you did!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

BUY: Avocados

If avocados have a season, I think it would be now, though in most parts of N. America they are available all year round, and should certainly be purchased all year round in my opinion.

I've always thought this succulent, rich, buttery fruit is a staple on everyone's kitchen counter as it is on mine, but have come to learn that this isn't necessarily true (but in my opinion it certainly should be). Avocados are not only rich in flavour, they are rich in nutrients. As well as containing 60% more potassium than bananas, they are rich in B vitamins, vitamin E, vitamin K, and contain the most fiber of any other fruit. Unfortunately, they also contain a whole ton of fat, but it's the good fat that our bodies need to absorb all these fantastic nutrients, which means in moderation they are still very good for you. The picture above comes from this site, which contains much more info on all the health benefits associated with the yummy avocado.

But, I'm here to tell you about the taste benefits, because of those there are also many! First off, it needs to be said that in most cases avocados are not sold ripe. They often need to be ripened on your kitchen counter for 3 or 4 days, even up to a week. The most common variety are Hass, and you'll often see them in the grocery store to be green in colour and firm to the touch. They are ripe when the skin turns darker, almost black, and there is some give to the touch. I'm now in the habit of buying a few avocados every time I'm buying produce. That way, when I have a recipe that calls for them, or I just need a quick snack I always have them ripe and ready (ripened, avocados will keep in the fridge for few more days).

Once they are ripe, the possibilities are endless. My favorite is straight up, as a snack. In fact, they are one of my favorite snacks. Simply mash one whole avocado with a sprinkling of salt and a splash of lime juice. Serve with tortilla chips, or on a toasted pita. Yum. This same mixture can also be labelled "guacamole" and served on everything from sandwiches to fajitas, even in burgers or smothered on a toasted English muffin and topped with a poached egg. Yum (again).

Dice avocados to toss into your favorite salads, or slice them to make a simple BLT out-of-this-world. Mash them and layer them with refried beans, sour cream and salsa for a fun party dip. Cut them in half, scoop out the flesh, and use the shells as a "bowl" for an elegant presentation of a nice salad using the avocado as the main ingredient.

There really are so many more delicious ways to use your avocados. Trust me, they won't go to waste. So next time you are shopping (and then the time after that, and the time after that), buy a few. They'll soon become a regular on your shopping list, right after eggs, milk and bread.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Entertaining Your Family: Easy Weeknight Meal, all on the Grill

I just got back from a wonderful, and outrageously spontaneous, trip to Santiago, Chile of all places! My hubby has been in S. America since the first of June, and when his trip got extended for another couple of weeks he called and asked my daughter and I (who is not quite 2 yet so still free to fly) to join him. After a mulling it over for a couple of hours, the thought of 3 more weeks of single mom-hood took over (TOTALLY have new respect for all you single parents out there), and I decided that well, "If Mohammed won't come to the mountain, ...", and 24 hours later we were out the door and on a plane.

Now, I just mentioned I have a toddler. To put this into perspective let me also mention that the trip from Calgary, Alberta Canada to Santiago, Chile South America is not exactly a hop, skip and a jump. To make matters worse, when we landed in Dallas after our first 4 hour leg of the journey I found out our overnight flight to Santiago had been cancelled, and I was stuck at a Dallas hotel with no luggage, minimal diapers, lacking in toys to entertain my child, and of course no hubby.

Needless to say after a very LONG journey we did make it Santiago, and it was fantastic. I was amazed by how wonderful everything was, the food, the wine, the Pisco sours (I may even post a recipe for these one day...we bought some Pisco, we took some pictures of locals making them, and as soon as I perfect this refreshing cocktail at home it will be passed on), and I got a much needed break with hubby around to change a few diapers.

Well, I'm home now (and he's still there), and let me tell you I forgot once I got to my destination in Santiago that I'd have to travel back - for 20 hours - with a toddler - by myself. I'm pooped.

But, we have to eat. And I don't know about you but after traveling for 10 days and eating in restaurants breakfast, lunch and dinner, I just can't do too much more take-out. Sure, the first night we got back I ordered in - couldn't even wrap my head around the idea of turning on the stove and tossing in a frozen pizza, but now I need to cook something.

Of course I had to hit the grocery store, so while I was there I picked up some chicken legs. Nothing fancy, and great on the grill (less dishes - perfect for tired cooking). When I got home I marinated them in red wine vinegar, a couple cloves of garlic, olive oil, and fresh rosemary (I happen to have got the inspiration for this recipe when I was at the grocery store, and picked up the fresh rosemary while I was there - but you can use dried no problem). I'm not going to give you a recipe for this because I just eye-balled it and you should too.

Then, into a plastic bag it all went, back into the fridge, and I forgot about them for 24 hours. When it came time for dinner tonight I fired up the BBQ (yes, I grill - my husband travels lots remember), and first prepared a tinfoil packet of red potatoes by cutting up the potatoes and laying them on a large sheet of the foil. Top with a tablespoon or so of butter, s&p, a small sprig of the rosemary (again whatever you have on hand will do) and about 3 tablespoons of water. Seal it up with another piece of foil and fold over all edges to make a tight pocket. That went on the top rack of the BBQ first where they will bake/steam as the rest of the food cooks. Then, on went my marinated chicken legs, and about 7 or so minutes before everything was done I threw on some seasoned (in olive oil and s&p) asparagus to char a little.

That was dinner. All on the grill for minimal cleanup, all homemade to make me feel human again, and all super easy so I didn't burst into tears out of exhaustion in the middle of it all!

It's good to be home, it's good to cook again, and it will be good to be totally back to normal very soon!