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!

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Entertaining your Family: Homemade Shortcakes with Drunken Strawberries

This weekend for me was all about strawberry shortcake. I came upon it kind of accidentally actually - basically a result of buying too much fruit at the grocery store earlier this week, and realizing that it would be difficult for my daughter and I to consume 2 pineapples, 5 bananas, 6 apples, a large bag of grapes, about a dozen kiwis, and a whole large flat of strawberries before some of it started to go south on me (though I must say the grapes are long gone, and we've made a serious dent in the second pineapple already, so we aren't doing that bad!).

Anyway, when friends invited me for dinner this weekend, I figured that this was a good time to offer to bring a dessert, and strawberry shortcakes immediately came to mind. I've been meaning to come up with my own shortcake recipe for ages now, and with several fresh smelling strawberries consuming my senses at every turn, I decided this was the weekend. Unfortunately though, my husband is out of town - with the camera - so I couldn't document my progress (hence the borrowed picture witch I got from here).

So, onto the shortcakes. I looked at SEVERAL recipes before my first attempt, as I had a few stipulations. One, I didn't want to have to use buttermilk in my recipe. I didn't have any, and I was in no mood to a) go to the store to get some, and b) fuss about with vinegar and what have you to make my own. I wanted this recipe to be as approachable as possible, and buttermilk just isn't something people have on hand every day. The other thing I wanted was for the batter to be tasty, but not too sweet. I planned on adding sugar and booze to my strawberries, topping them with sweetened whipped cream, and dusting the whole lot with icing sugar. That's sweet enough. The shortcake I envisioned was going to be pillowy and soft, but not overpowering to the point that it would take away from the star ingredient (hello, strawberries!).

So, my first attempt was not good. The biscuits didn't rise properly, they had no colour whatsoever, and they were pretty much tasteless. Nope, simply would not do. Batch number two on the other hand...

Here is the recipe:

2 cups flour
2 1/2 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons baking powder
pinch of salt (if your butter is salted), or 1/8 of a teaspoon if it is not
1/2 cup (1 stick) very cold butter, cut into small pieces
zest of half a lemon
3/4 cup milk
2 tablespoon heaving cream (or 1 beaten egg mixed with a little milk) for brushing

Preheat oven to 400F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper, set aside. Combine flour, sugar and salt in a food processor. Add the butter. Pulse mixture 5 or 6 times until the mixture reassembles a coarse meal (there should be little lumps of butter throughout) do not over mix. Add lemon zest and milk and pulse 3 or 4 more times until mixture just starts to come together into a ball.

Divide the dough into 6 equal portions and drop on prepared baking sheet. Lightly pat the dough into rounds, 3 to 3 1/2 inches in diameter and lightly brush the tops with the cream or egg mixture.

Bake the shortcakes in the center of the oven for 20 minutes or until golden brown. Cool on a wire rack.

For the strawberries, I borrowed a topping from another recipe. Jazzing them up with a little booze just makes the dessert more elegant!

Drunken Strawberries:
2 pounds of strawberries, washed, hulled and quartered
2 - 3 tablespoons of Grand Marnier or Cointreau
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Combine all ingredients in a bowl, cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.

To serve the shortcakes:
Cut the top 1/3 portion off the shortcake, set aside. Place bottom piece on a serving plate and top with about a cup of the strawberry mixture. Dollop with whipped cream, and place the "lid" back on the top. Garnish with an extra dollop of whipped cream (if desired) some additional strawberries and good dusting of icing sugar. Serve.

It was good...really good. Well worth the fact that I had to make them twice (and I'll most definitely be making them again...soon).

Friday, May 22, 2009

Tip: Perfect can be Ugly

I know this is a strange concept...perfection as unappealing, but you know what? Sometimes it is. Maybe not perfection in and of itself, but the stress and unrealistic ambitions we often put on ourselves when trying to accomplish certain things in our life, especially when it comes to cooking.

Here's what I think: It doesn't have to be perfect. Now, I'm not talking about that careless "good enough" attitude that some people have, leaving things that should be done properly done only halfway making it really, in essence, not "good enough". The chicken does need to be cooked, and the seafood probably shouldn't be served raw, but that's not what I'm talking about here.

What I am referring to is the social stigma that seems to equate "perfect" with being "good". Like the fashion magazines that make us feel like we should look thin and have perfect hair, teeth, makeup, abs, and of course flawless complexion, cookbooks and magazines often set recipes as unattainable or impossible to execute just by how good they look. The pressures of social media and this unrealistic view that everything "has to be perfect" has seeped into just about every aspect of our lives - and cooking has become just one more thing that we need to do "perfectly" in order for it to be of any value. Somewhere the true passion for cooking and what it actually means has been lost. It's not about the perfect garnish or glaze, airbrushing or photoshop, it's about making a meal for your family and taking pride in what you serve. It's not about being perfect or flawless, or looking just like the picture, it's about fresh ingredients and about nurturing your family - mind, body, and soul. In fact, your dish may need a little more salt, a little less garlic, or a touch more sugar. Half of the cake may still be stuck to the bottom of the pan, the sauce on the pasta may be a touch too thin, or the salad wilted ever so slightly because it was tossed too soon with the dressing. It doesn't matter. Really. This is how we learn, and this is how we all become better cooks. And it's still going to taste good. Trust me.

My advice: Just cook. It doesn't have to be perfect, it just has to be honest food. Fresh ingredients, simple cooking methods, basic food knowledge, and a whole lot of love. That's all it takes. People will never know what it was "supposed" to look like, and quite frankly they'll be so happy to be treated to a freshly cooked meal they really won't care. So don't stress over your next dinner party, backyard BBQ, or get all worried about trying out a new recipe. Just do the best you can, and if it doesn't look like the picture, so what? It's just a picture, and they too probably made a few mistakes to get there.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Entertaining Your Family: Smoothies! (Maman and Gourmand Smoothie/Shake Recipe Contest!)

So, fruit shakes are a "thing" right now. You can find them just about anywhere from a smoothie bar at a gym, to a large chain located in the local mall. They'll also blend just about anything you wish to mix with fruit and yogurt (protein powder, vitamins, grass-looking stuff - you name it). They'll also charge you. Alot.

Now these places are fantastic when you are on the go and need a snack that's not either full of sugar or deep fried. But, you can also make them yourself (and take them with you if you like when you are on the go) and it's easier than you think! We've been making fruit smoothies in our house for years, and ever since my daughter got into them when she was about a year old (she's almost two now), we've been making them several times a week at least. So, when I learned about a contest a fellow food blogger was hosting calling out for the best smoothie recipe, I figured this was perfect for me. I've gone through many "variations" of our smoothie recipe over the last few years, and I now figure I've got a pretty good one nailed (but of be the judge). Below is the recipe and my tricks for the best ever smoothie. Then, starting May 11th, be sure to vote HERE if you like it...which you fact you'll wonder how those "smoothie spots" even stay in business now that you (and I) are by far the ultimate smoothie makers!

So first off, here are the ingredients:
Pretty basic stuff, in a blender I add about a handful of ice, one banana, some juice, some frozen fruit, about a cup or so of yogurt, and some ground flax seed (shhh...don't tell anybody and they won't notice, trust me!)

But look a little closer, because the secret to the best smoothie is in this picture...I'm not sure if Oasis is purely Canadian or if it's available everywhere, but it is FANTASTIC stuff. A very dark, rich, fruit juice made from dark super fruits such as pomegranates, blueberries, and blackberries. Extremely high in antioxidants, vitamin C, and flavour, and extremely low in sugar and additives (actually there isn't any). On it's own it's not overly sweet, and taste like it's straight from the fruit itself. It's a little pricey (about $4 for this container), but totally worth it in my mind. Why? Well, because of this juice, I get all the nutrition and goodness from the dark berry fruit without all the little annoying pips! Yup, no seeds in this smoothie! To me this is huge. Smoothies of years past were chalk full of blueberries, raspberries, blackberries - super delicious and healthy no doubt, but I was picking seeds out of my teeth until least. Not to mention it's totally not cool going into a business meeting with bits of raspberry stuck in your teeth. Now we use this as our juice base along with frozen mixed fruit (usually peaches, melons, pineapple, etc...) instead of berries. The result is an amazing smoothie. Truly. Just about every fruit you can imagine (and just about every vitamin too) in a deliciously smooth and silky texture. We love it. You will too.

Here's the exact recipe:

Party Designers Super Smooth and Healthy Fruit Smoothie
1 handful ice
1 large banana
1 cup yogurt (any kind will do - we use organic vanilla quite often)
2 - 3 cups frozen mixed fruit
1 tsp ground flax seed (optional)
2 - 3 cups good quality berry juice (such as Oasis Antioxia)

Combine all ingredients in blender and blend until smooth. Start with about 2 cups of juice and add additional juice to desired consistency.

Makes about 5 -6 cups.

I didn't get a photo of the the finished product in the blender. These are so good that once my daughter hears that blender going, there isn't much time for foolin' around. But I did snap this...
And this... (that's a smile by the way - trust me - she drank the whole thing!). And, I also snapped broken and cracked blender:Did I fail to mention that the winner of this contest will get a new blender? Well, um, they will. This one And well, um, I need one. Bad. My daughter does too for that matter!

Win or lose of course I still think this is a great recipe that you and your family will really enjoy, so I still encourage you to make it, but I also encourage you to vote (for me) HERE!

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Entertaining your Family: Tomato Sauce

Now that you have all that freshly grated fantastic Parmigiano Reggiano at your disposal, I figured it would be quite logical of me to post about how you can also give up that pre-bottled pasta sauce and make your own - and it too will cost you less money! Though it may seem quick and convenient to buy one of those jars (and how can you miss them, what are there about 50 varieties now?), I am here to tell you that making your own can be just as easy (and just as quick and convenient). It is also extremely easy to customize the flavours of each sauce to your liking, or to your particular mood, or to whatever ingredients you have on hand! Can it really get much better than that? YES! I'm going to give you 3 of my favorite "go-to" sauces that you can use any day of the week - even tonight - because I can almost guarantee you have all the ingredients in your house right now for at least one of these recipes!
It all starts, of course, with the humble tomato. This pictures is taken from a website that talks about San Marzano tomatoes (as well as the health benefits of tomatoes in general, so be sure to check it out HERE). San Marzano's have a reputation among many cooks (and Italians alike) as being the best tomato for a pasta sauce. And though I do buy them when I happen to be in a speciality shop, I'm not going to tell you that it's a necessity for good sauce (not to mention I can almost guarantee that the stuff in those jars we are trying desperately to steer away from do not contain one single San Marzano tomato). But, you do need tomatoes, of some sort or another. Most common for me is a regular old tin of whole tomatoes. I happen to like a smooth sauce, so I give the contents a quick whirl in the food processor before I use them, but mashing them with a fork or the back of spoon for a more textured sauce also works well. I've also been known to use vine-ripened tomatoes (when in season) for my sauces. If that's what you choose as your base, it's a good idea to blanch them, and then remove the skin. If you don't even want to go to that amount of trouble, but still like the idea of fresh tomatoes, try cherry tomatoes or grape tomatoes. They'll pop and release their juices, but the skin won't be as much of an issue. Basically, choose whatever kind of tomatoes are easily available to you and require the least amount of effort!
So, the recipes:
1. Simply Delicious
This is as simple as it gets, but it will blow you away at how tasty it is!
2 tbsp good quality olive oil
2 gloves of garlic, finely sliced
1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
1 can (28oz) tomatoes (with their juice)
salt and pepper to taste
Heat the oil in a large saute pan. Add garlic and red pepper flakes and cook gently until garlic just begins to brown. Add tomatoes. Allow to simmer for about 15 minutes just until the sauce starts to thicken slightly. Season with salt and pepper, and serve.
Add-Ins: I use this recipe quite often as a base for a pesto/tomato sauce. After the sauce has simmered, I add in about a cup of pesto. Alternately, you could simply add a cup of fresh basil for fresher flavour.
Serving Suggestions: Of course, this sauce is great on it's own with spaghetti, but we find it's a perfect pairing with tortellini and grilled Italian sausages - in fact, I served it during a dinner party once (Andra if you're out there say all those great things you did that night at dinner!!).
2. Tomato Sauce with White Wine
Browning onions and tomato paste give this sauce a little more depth of flavour. It also shows a recipe using vine-ripened tomatoes, but you can always substitute won't make a difference!

2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 onion, finely chopped
4 gloves garlic
1 can tomato paste
3/4 cup white wine
3 vine ripened tomatoes, blanched, and finely chopped
1/2 cup fresh basil leaves, chopped

Heat olive in a medium size saucepan over medium high heat. Add onion and garlic and cook until onions are just starting to brown. Add tomato paste, and cook for 2 minutes. Deglaze the pan with the white wine, scrapping any brown bits. Add tomatoes and half the basil, season with salt and pepper, and bring to a simmer. Let cook, uncovered, on medium-low heat for 30 minutes, or until mixture starts to thicken. Add remaining basil as well as salt and pepper to taste, and serve.
Add-Ins: This is the base I use for my red clam sauce. I live in Calgary, so fresh clams are not always at my fingertips so I use canned quite often. Simply add 1 can of clams (with juice) after tomato sauce has simmered, and cook for an additional 10 minutes (just until clams are heated through). Then add the remaining basil and season with S&P.
Serving Suggestions: When making this into a clam sauce, the logical choice is linguine, but this sauce is pretty rich and delicious on it's own. Serve with penne or any kind of short pasta!
3. Veggie Tomato Sauce
Don't tell the kids, but this sauce is packed with carrots and zucchini! They'll never notice me!
2 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, grated
2 large cloves garlic, grated
1 zucchini, grated
1 carrot, grated
1 can (28oz) crushed tomatoes
1/2 cup red wine
1 tsp Italian seasoning
salt and pepper
Heat olive oil in medium sized saucepan. Add onion and garlic and cook until soft. Add zucchini and carrot, and allow to cook a few more minutes. Add tomatoes, wine and seasoning, and allow to simmer for 45 minutes to an hour. Season with salt and pepper and serve.
Add-Ins: Use a mixture of any vegetables you have on hand. Red peppers also work well. The trick is to grate the vegetables (any large-grate cheese grater will do). This will allow them to melt away during the long simmering time and make them virtually unnoticeable!
Serving Suggestions: This is perfect as is with a good mound of spaghetti.
Finally, I have one last suggestion for the perfect pasta dish. One thing I always do before adding the sauce to the pasta is that I dress the hot noodles with a nob of butter, a handful of Parmesan cheese (hello parmigiano reggiano), some freshly cracked black pepper, and some fresh herbs. I find the butter and the cheese give the final dish an extra smooth and silky texture and the fresh herbs stay fresh and don't run the risk of getting over cooked. Then simply pour over your sauce (I happen to like the Italian way - just enough sauce to coat everything really well, but not so that the pasta is swimming), and serve any additional sauce on the side.
One final tip - leftover sauce (from any recipe) will freeze really well. But, if you have just a little bit left that you don't want to waste (and if you have young children), freeze it in ice cube trays for a quick defrost and quick meal for your little one if you are on the go!
I hope this has inspired you to give your own sauce a try! Hey, if you have a sauce that you love please share it with me! I'm always on the look out for new recipes and new ways to use that one can of tomatoes - and avoid buying 8 different jars!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

TIP: Grate your own Parmigiano-Reggiano

So, I don't want to shock any of you with this, but the Parmesan you buy in the green plastic container - sandwiched between the dry pasta and the Classico sauce at the grocery store - is not real Parmesan. At least not by my standards. In order to justify itself to me as real it needs to be a) FROM ITALY and b) labeled Parmigiano-Reggiano. Now, from there it can be any brand really - it doesn't have to be the most expensive, or the most sought after because even making sure it fits these two criteria will deliver so much in the flavour department you'll cringe at the plastic container stuff from here on out!

For the last several years, I have been buying my Parmigiano-Reggiano in large chunks, and then grating it myself. Believe it or not, the Costco in my area sells fairly decent Parm at a fairly reasonable price. It will seem expensive and will probably run you at least $25.00 for a good sized wedge, but remember it will last a few months (mine does anyway), and lest we forget that those lovely green plastic containers are usually at least $8.00 at the grocery store, so you are buying a far superior product in bulk (Costco doesn't do anything small) and with minimal labour required at home to grate it.

Now, if you want to, you could seek out a specialty cheese shop, and buy a more expensive brand, with maybe a more distinct flavour, but at the end of the day I do have a grocery budget for my family, so the brand at Costco works for me - and it does fit my criteria (when in doubt make sure the rind of the cheese is stamped with the signature "label" that it has been produced in Italy), not to mention it tastes pretty darn good and makes "real" cheese accessible to everyone!
I personally like to grate my cheese in two "consistencies". I like the finer, powder like grate for sauces, or stirred into soups because it will melt quickly and easily. But, I also prefer a more typical grated cheese to sprinkle over pastas and salads, grilled veggies or pizza.

For the first, you'll need a pretty heavy duty food processor. The first few spins will practically send the whole thing careening to the floor, so I can only imagine the damage this uber-hard cheese would do to one that doesn't have a fairly sturdy base and motor! Simply cut half your wedge of parm into a few large chunks, place in food processor, and whirl until sand like consistency forms.

For the latter, well, let's just say you can skip your arm workout that day. I don't have a grater fine enough on my food processor, so I end up doing this one by hand. It takes a few minutes, and you may break into a sweat, but just keep reminding yourself just how delicious your next batch of spaghetti will be!

And Voila! Several containers of grated, fresh, REAL Parmigiano-Reggiano for your epicurean adventures. I store the smaller containers in the fridge and the larger ones in the freezer, refilling the smaller ones as they run out. Do remember that a little goes a long way, so it really should last you at least a couple of months. Trust me though, the effort (and the slightly elevated cost) will be worth it. You'll never go back to that pre-packaged stuff again (and your belly will certainly thank you!)

Thursday, April 9, 2009

BUY: Asparagus

First off - sincere apologies. I haven't kept up with my blog last few weeks. I'm not sure how many people are even out there reading it, but it's still important to me that I post more regularly than I have been. So, that said, I will try to get back on my "every other Wednesday" schedule right away!

While I was off something crazy happened - SRRING! Now, here in Calgary, Spring is relative. Yes, we have the same official start date as the rest of the world, but up until a few days ago we were still shoveling snow on a regular basis. Today though it sits at a comfortable +15 C., so I think I can safely declare that Spring has arrived.

Asparagus is certainly a vegetable that screams this change of season. Sure, it's available all year round now, but it's harvested more often in the Spring to early summer than any other time of the year, making it at it's peak in flavour and freshness. Not to mention it's far less expensive to buy vegetables in season, so now is the time to stock up on some asparagus.

Browsing the internet for some additional info, I also learned that asparagus is actually extremely high if folacin (also knows as folic acid) - 60% of our recommended daily allowance in fact! This is extremely useful information for women especially - folacin is key in preventing neural tube defects in babies during pregnancy. Known mostly to be found in green leafy vegetables such as broccoli and spinach, I actually had no idea there was such a large amount in asparagus! Of course, it is widely known that folacin needs to be consumed well before the pregnancy even occurs to have an adequate supply in the system, so it is recommended that all women in "childbearing age" consume at least 0.4mg daily. (This is also a super important vitamin for people who are not "women of childbearing age" as folic acid deficiency can lead to fatigue, poor growth and intestinal problems).

Luckily, asparagus is delicious, and we eat it quite frequently. The most common method to prepare it at our house is roasting. Simply drizzle washed and trimmed asparagus spears (the bottom of an asparagus spear is very woody - simply break off the bottom at it's "natural" point. You can also cut the bottoms, or even grate the bottom with a vegetable peeler if you prefer) with a glug or two of olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, toss on a sheet pan and roast in 450 - 500 degree oven for 5 - 8 minutes (depending on the thickness of your spears). Shake the pan once during roasting to ensure all sides are well caramelized.

Another favorite in our family is asparagus pasta. Wash, trim, and cut a couple handfuls of asparagus into bite size pieces. On very low heat, cook a tablespoons or so of garlic with a teaspoon or so of hot pepper flakes along with 3 - 4 tablespoons of olive oil and a tablespoon or so of butter (like my measurements? This is a very forgiving recipe so you can cook to your own taste). Add asparagus and gently cook until spears are tender-crisp. Toss with enough pasta for two, a handful of good quality Parmesan cheese and some freshly ground pepper. This makes an amazing side dish, or simply dinner all on it's own (has been for me on many an occasion!).

So, run to the grocery store, buy some asparagus, make yourself a tasty meal, and procreate healthy children. Sounds good to me!

Pictures and nutritional information courtesy of

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Entertaining Your Family: Decorated Sugar Cookies

I know...Valentine's Day is over, but seeing as we are still enjoying the baking I figured I could still post about it! I had every intention of making these the days leading up to Valentine's Day, but a nasty bug got a grip of the majority of the people who live here (dog included), so instead of consuming this treat on Valentine's Day they were baked that day, iced the next day, and I've been eating them with my afternoon tea all week.

All that aside, it's more the concept of the cookie that I'm after in this post - not the shape. Sugar cookies are actually a fantastic way to get the whole family involved in baking (maybe not your husband - mine iced one then went back to painting a wall in the house I guess it kinda counts as decorating). But if you have kids they will get a kick out of getting creative with the icing. My daughter is only 19 months old so she didn't really help either, but she was a very important part of my test kitchen...several cookies had to be consumed (both with and without icing for comparison purposes) in order to get the official thumbs up!

The great part about sugar cookies is that the ingredients are most likely already in your house. I don't consider myself a real baker (I'm more into cooking and meal planning) and I even have these ingredients at the ready. I also like that they can be cut out into whatever shape suits the occasion - or your mood really. Go ahead and get creative. I'm planning a baby shower in a couple of weeks and I'm going to make another batch in the shape of buggies, rattles, bottles, and whatever else I can find. If you can't find cookie cutters, you can always print a shape onto paper, cut it out, then use it on the dough and trace the shape out with a knife (requires a tad more patience then I have, but certainly doable).

As far as icing goes, this is a variation of a classic royal icing. By reducing the amount of icing sugar, the icing becomes thinner and more easily spreadable. Also, if cookies are iced with two colours at the same time (rather than waiting for one colour to dry), the new colour will sort of seep into the base colour giving the cookie a smooth finish. My mom has been decorating her sugar cookies this way for years. The icing will still dry to a hard finish, but it won't be the consistency of cement, and it will make your cookies look quite elegant.

Below are the recipes, and don't forget to get creative! It's a fun way to celebrate everyday accomplishments (slip a heart cookie into your kids lunch), or holidays (Clover Leaf cookie anyone?). Not to mention there is something to be said for easy, inexpensive ways to get your kids into the kitchen and interested in cooking, and they'll be so proud of their efforts I urge you to hide a few right way so you can indulge with an afternoon tea!

Sugar Cookies
3/4 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla
2 1/2 cups flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
pinch salt

In large bowl, beat butter until light and fluffy; slowly beat in sugar. Beat in egg and vanilla. In separate bowl, stir together flour, baking powder and salt; gradually stir into butter mixture.

Divide dough in half; flatten slightly. Wrap each disk in plastic wrap; refrigerate for at least 1 hour or for up to 24 hours.

On lightly floured surface, roll out each half into 1/4" (5mm) thickness. Cut into shapes using cookie cutters. Place 1" apart on cookie sheets lined with parchment paper. Bake at 375 degrees until light golden on bottoms and edges, about 8 - 10 minutes. Let cool on pans for 1 minute, transfer to racks and let cool completely. Makes about 36 cookies (depending on size of shapes).

"Spreadable" Royal Icing
2 cups icing sugar
1/4 tsp cream of tartar
2 egg whites
1/2 tsp almond extract (or whatever flavour you desire...I actually used vanilla)
food colouring
Combine all ingredients (except food colouring). Mix with electric mixer until smooth. Divide icing, and mix with desired colours. Icing will harden within about 45 minutes of being spread on cookies.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Tip: Grate Garlic and Store it in the Freezer!

This is one of the best tips I've come across so far, and I can't even take credit for it! My good friend Drew, who is not only a fabulous cook, but runs a successful cooking school called "Curry Cuisine", told me about this when she was conducting a class for me and my friends a few weeks back. She had brought with her some garlic and ginger that she had pre-grated to use in our recipes. I mentioned I hate buying that pre-grated stuff in the grocery stores, but when I do it myself, it always seems to go bad before I use it all! She then told me when she does a large batch, she will often freeze it after she grates instead of storing it in the fridge. This way, she doesn't have to worry about it going bad if it's not all used right away. Brilliant! This was something I never even thought of, and all of sudden I was really eager to try it! So I did.

When at the grocery next I found a large bag of garlic heads - about 25 or so for a very reasonable price. The most time consuming part of this process was certainly peeling each glove, but I did find I got into a bit of a grove. Plus, though I'm not going to go into the exact science of peeling garlic as everyone has their own "system", crushing the cloves slightly with the back of a large chef's knife did help to dislodge the skins, and the fact I bruised the cloves was a non-issue as they where going right into the processor anyway. Once I was done I was able to whiz all my efforts into one large batch of grated garlic. From there, onto the cookie sheet in mounds about the size of one heaping teaspoon (I figure about 2 gloves worth), and into the freezer for a quick freeze before loading into resealable plastic bags.

And voila! Now, when I need a couple of gloves of garlic, there they are, in the freezer, ready to be popped into sauces or soups, stir-frys or curries. I love it. I did the exact same thing the next day with ginger which was a little less time consuming, thanks to the fact that ginger doesn't come in cloves! Yes, getting them in the freezer takes a little time, but it's worth it in my opinion. It's cheaper than buying that pre-grated stuff in the grocery stores (not to mention what do they put in it to make it last so long?), yet you still get the convenience of grated garlic right at your fingertips - especially on those weeknights when even peeling 2 or 3 gloves of garlic seems too daunting and not worth the effort!

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

BUY: Beets

Ok, so this is about as honest as it gets because guess what? I hate beets. Or, at least, I thought I did. I just never knew what to do with them, and the only time I've ever been served beets they've been pickled. I definitely don't like pickled beets, and I think that just turned me off of beets all together. Until now.

Thanks to my sister and her glorious re-introduction of beets. For the first time in my life I was served beets and they weren't pickled. And, they were absolutely delicious. I raved about them for days, and when we returned from Christmas vacation one of the first items on my grocery lists were beets.

The interesting thing I learned from sister (who actually learned it from Jamie Oliver) is that beets can be served raw. And that's just how they were presented to me. In a wonderful salad that was crisp, refreshing, and oh so tasty.

Beets are another one of those super foods too! One website I read (I'm now on a "learn all I can about beets kick") says that they've been known to prevent cancer and heart disease, helps rid your body of unhealthily toxins, metals and hormones, and promotes a healthy liver, colon and stomach. Wow. Though beets do come in variety of fun colours, the red ones provide the most health benefits and since they are also the most readily available, those are the ones to buy!
So, because I think you should all go out and buy a few beets, I'm including the recipe for the raw beet salad. My sister found the recipe in Jamie Oliver's new cookbook, Cook with Jamie. I've changed it around a little and added a few personal touches, but it's generally the same idea. Later this week, I'm going to roast some beets and see if my love affair with my new found favorite veggie continues!
Raw Beet Salad with Apples and Goat Cheese
2 beets, peeled and cut into matchsticks
1 Granny Smith apple, cut into matchsticks
1/2 cup pecans, toasted
1/2 crumbled goat cheese
spinach leaves for garnish
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1/2 clove garlic, grated
salt and pepper
In large bowl, combine beets and apples. Toss with dressing. Chill for about 15 minutes. On 6 salad plates, lay a few spinach leaves to create a base for the salad. Pile 1/6 of the beet and apple mixture over each plate of spinach. Sprinkle with goat cheese and toasted pecans. Makes 6 servings.
Note: Beets are messy. Use kitchen gloves if you have them!
Picture taken from: