Wednesday, December 17, 2008

TIP: Stash Cranberries in your Freezer

This is the time of year when cellophane bags of cranberries are piled high in supermarkets all over North America. This is because most people (and I'm not most people in this case) cannot have a bite of turkey without a heaping spoonful of cranberry sauce on the side. Or, if you are like my dad, your boxing day turkey sandwich would not be complete without a thin film of cranberry sauce opposite the mayo.

Now I say I'm not most people here because I don't much care for cranberry sauce. Not sure why. I probably need to "try it again for the first time" because it's been so long since I've had it, and it's just natural for me to pass it by during holiday meals. But, that doesn't mean I don't stock up on bags of cranberries during turkey season. They have more uses than cranberry sauce - and better ones too in my opinion!

First off, cranberries freeze very well. Just toss the bag into the freezer and that's that. Later, they can be used for Cranberry Banana Muffins, Cranberry Scones, or halve them and toss a few into pancake batter for a tart contrast when the syrup is drizzled over top.

Don't like to bake? That's Ok. Cranberries make festive decorations. String frozen cranberries through a needle to make an outdoor wreath, or fill a vase with cranberries and add greenery for a festive holiday table. It's an inexpensive way to add a little more decor to your home during the season. Later in the year, add frozen cranberries to a large vase or bowl with water and floating candles for a fun centerpiece any time of year.
So, though cranberry sauce may be the most popular use for this seasonal fruit, be sure to pop a few extra bags in your freezer for later in the year - and if, 6 months down the road, you want to make cranberry sauce with them - that's Ok too!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Entertaining Your Family: Split Pea Soup

Well, it's officially winter which, in our house, means it's officially soup season. I love soup, and I love to use the crockpot for my soups. Just assemble all the ingredients in the morning, let it simmer away for few hours, then return home to a warm and satisfying meal that will stick to your ribs and warm you from the inside out!

One of my favourite winter soups is Split Pea and Ham. I use a recipe my mom has been using for years (with a few of my own adjustments). The key to this fantastic meal though is the ham. It needs to be a "real" ham, and by "real" I mean not a pressed processed ham, but a ham hock or shank that has good flavour and that will add complexity to this dish.

Ham's are easy to find around the holidays. They are often huge though, so my trick? I buy a large ham shank and cut it up into pieces. I freeze what I don't use in the first batch of soup for a soup later in the winter (when the holidays are over and they are less readily available). It does mean that there will only be one bone piece (and only one soup with that much more flavour) but surprisingly, the soup is just as tasty with a boneless piece of ham. This time, I bought an 8lb ham shank and cut it up into 3 pieces, the first of which landed in my crockpot for a fantastic and hardy mid-week meal. I prefer to buy hams that aren't smoked with any additional flavouring though (i.e. maple), as I enjoy the simplicity of this recipe.

Split Pea Soup
2 cups split peas, well washed
2 1/2 pounds ham hock
8 cups water
1 onion
2 whole cloves
2 ribs celery, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
2 cloves garlic
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon peppercorns

1. Peel onion, and stick with the two cloves. Combine onion and all other ingredients in crockpot. Cover and set to cook for 8 hours.
2. With one hour remaining in the cooking time, remove ham bone. Remove bay leaf and cloves from onion, discard. Puree soup with an emulsion blender, or in batches with a blender. Cut off meat from the bone, and dice. Return to crockpot with pureed soup. Allow to cook for the remaining hour, serve.

This soup would probably serve 6 to 8 as a first course and 4 healthy portions as a main. I usually serve it with a nice loaf of crunchy garlic bread, but really all it needs is a spoon!