Saturday, December 8, 2012

Quinoa-Leek Pilaf is a stellar
holiday dinner side dish

This time of year, many cooks are on the lookout for a stellar side dish, one that will be a worthy alongside a magnificent Christmas turkey, ham or roast.
    But the easier the side dish the better, right?
    Well, I’ve got a recipe that fits the bill perfectly: Quinoa-Leek Pilaf (click for the recipe).
    My husband and I agreed immediately after trying it that it was a winner. The quinoa was fluffy and light; the leeks a perfect accompaniment. But it was also filling and hearty, reminding me of stuffing.
    In fact, this pilaf could easily stand in for stuffing at any holiday dinner, and it is much easier to make. Leftovers also warmed up very nicely in the microwave, making this side nice to enjoy even after the big dinner is done.
    The secret to the pilaf’s excellent taste, I think, is that the quinoa was cooked in vegetable broth.
    The pilaf is so easy to make. Note that the recipe makes 10 to 12 servings, so be sure to halve the ingredients if you need to make less.
    The recipe says to use a large, deep skillet, but if you are nervous about this not being big enough, by all means use a large soup pot instead.
    Leeks are cooked in a skillet, then rinsed and drained quinoa is added and cooked for about five minutes.
    Vegetable broth (I used store-bought) and water are added to the leeks and quinoa and brought to a boil. The skillet or pot is then covered and simmered over moderately-low heat until the quinoa is tender and the liquid is absorbed, about 20 minutes.
    The pilaf is removed from the heat, left to stand for 10 minutes, fluffed with a fork then served.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Christmas cookie baking begins
with Walnut Snowball Cookies

My annual foray into Christmas cookie baking began this year with Walnut Snowball Cookies (click for the recipe).
    I chose to try this recipe for two reasons: The apt-sounding name, and the use of vanilla bean seeds in the recipe, something I have never seen before in recipes for similar types of cookies.
    They were a good choice to get me in the holiday mood. They were easy to make and looked very wintery.
    Above all, they were bite-sized pieces of goodness that were a hit with everyone to whom I served them.
    One of my co-workers said they reminded her of the Christmas cookies her mother used to make.
    These cookies are practically begging to be served with a cup of tea, but they are just as good snuck off the plate, taken to a quiet corner, and enjoyed.
    They were easy to make.
    Walnuts are toasted in the oven, then coarsely chopped (I used a small electric kitchen chopper, but was careful the pieces weren't chopped too finely).
    Butter and vanilla bean seeds are beaten together, followed by additions of confectioner’s sugar (also called powdered sugar), salt, flour and walnuts until the dough comes together. It won’t come into a ball, but soft pieces; it’s your job to put the pieces together and roll them into balls.
    Level tablespoons of dough are arranged on cookie sheets lined with parchment paper and baked for about 17 minutes.
    After the cookies are cooled slightly, they are rolled in confectioner’s sugar to coat, then left to cool completely. The recipe says to roll them in sugar again, but I didn’t bother – they were coated well enough.
    The recipe says the cookies will keep in an airtight container for about five days, but I found that after three days the freshness started to ebb away.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Texture almost outranks taste of Brown Sugar Almond Cake with Caramel Frosting

Once in a rare while, I will make a dish or dessert whose texture almost outranks its taste.
    The texture of Brown Sugar Almond Cake with Caramel Frosting (click for the recipe - but watch out, it's missing an ingredient and has too much of another, read below*) is truly amazing. It’s moist yet fluffy, and it stays that way for about three days if kept in the fridge.
   A few samplers of this cake remarked on the cake’s terrific texture.
    I think the secret behind the texture is the unusual and clever step of blending canned pear halves with almonds to a thick purée, then blending that further with buttermilk and other ingredients.
    Not only is the texture great, the cake is also delicious. It is very family friendly, and works well for all sorts of occasions and situations from brunch to packed lunches.
    Another great feature of the recipe is an easy caramel frosting for which the refrigerator does most the work of thickening up the base caramel.     
    *The recipe I linked to above is the closest thing I could find on the Internet to the recipe I used from the cookbook Bon Appetit: Desserts. It is nearly identical to the one I used from the cookbook, with two glaring exceptions – it’s missing an amount of white granulated sugar, and has too much golden brown sugar.
    The recipe tells you to put both sugars in a blender, but only the golden brown sugar is listed in the cake ingredients.
    The recipe, according to the one I used, needs 3/4 cup white sugar and 1/2 cup golden brown sugar.
    The cake easy to make.
    Canned pear halves, drained well, are blended with blanched, slivered almonds in a food processor. Buttermilk, white sugar, golden brown sugar, butter, two eggs, and vanilla and almond extracts are put into the processor and the mixture is blended well. As the recipe says, it may look curdled, but this is fine.
    The wet ingredients are added to dry ingredients of cake flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt, and everything is stirred together to blend.
    The batter is poured into a nine-inch square cake pan that’s been lined with buttered wax paper. The cake is baked, then cooled slightly before being turned out of the pan and cooled completely.
    The frosting is made by combining dark brown sugar, whipping cream and dark corn syrup in a saucepan, then stirring over medium heat until the mixture comes to a boil. After two minutes of boiling, the mixture is poured into a bowl and chilled until cold and beginning to thicken, about one hour.
    Butter and powdered or confectioner's sugar are beaten together until smooth, then the cold brown sugar mixture and vanilla are beaten in.
    The frosting is spread over the cake, and toasted sliced almonds are sprinkled on top.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Chocolate Brownie Cookies are not the best I've ever had, but they're pretty darn good

One would think that cooking magazine editors have tasted the whole gamut of mighty fine-tasting cookies.
    That’s why I was immediately drawn to a recipe for Chocolate Brownie Cookies (click for the recipe) in a recent issue of Food & Wine magazine. The intro said that Dana Cowin, F&W’s editor-in-chief and a cookie connoisseur, declared that these cookies are the most delicious she’s ever had. The recipe is from Belinda Leong of B. Patisserie.
    Well, I thought when I read the intro, who am I to sit idly by and pass on this easy-looking recipe when it was certified golden by the editor of a major cooking magazine and the payoff was so potentially huge?
    I dutifully tried them, and was definitely pleased with the results.
     So was my husband, his co-workers, and my co-workers.
    While I can’t declare these to be the best cookies I’ve ever had, they are certainly very good.
    The recipe has an unusual step of freezing the cookie batter for one hour. Although I am far from an expert on the manner, I think freezing the batter might help firm it up to be more like dough in order to scoop it up portions of it and put them on the baking sheets.
    The cookies are easy to make.
    Chopped semisweet chocolate and butter are put in a large bowl, which is set over a saucepan of simmering water. The chocolate and butter are melted, a process which takes about seven minutes. I did the melting on a medium-low temperature, which kept the water simmering yet kept it boiling.
    In another bowl, room-temperature eggs and sugar are beaten together until thick and pale, then vanilla, salt, the melted chocolate, flour and baking powder are added.
   Mini semisweet chocolate chips are stirred into the batter, which is scraped into a shallow baking dish. The dish is covered and put into the freezer until the batter well-chilled and firm, about one hour.  I used a glass 9x13” baking dish to do this, and covered it with aluminum foil.
   Baking sheets are lined with parchment paper, and two-tablespoon-sized mounds of dough are scooped onto them.
   The cookies are baked for 10 minutes, cooled on the pan for 10 minutes, then transferred to a rack to cool completely.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Banana-Chocolate Chip Cake with Peanut Butter Frosting one of the best I've baked, husband says

My husband says it’s one of the best cakes I have ever baked, and I have baked a lot of cakes.
    Banana-Chocolate Chip Cake with Peanut Butter Frosting (click for the recipe) was a hit with us from the very first bite.
    The banana cake was beautifully moist, studded with the perfect amount of chocolate chips. The peanut butter frosting was soft and heavenly.
    It’s a very family-friendly dessert. Everyone will dig into this one.
    Because it’s a double-layer cake, it has an extra bit of fanciness that makes it a nice ending to a family gathering meal.
    On the website, this recipe received mixed reviews. Some loved it, others not at all.
    This puzzled me, because I found, obviously, that it worked very, very well.
    My guess is that people who didn’t find it successful may have not followed the recipe to the letter. This is the fastest way I know to ruin a perfectly good recipe.
    Make sure to use very ripe bananas, just as the recipe directs. It gives the cake a terrific depth of flavor, contributing greatly to its success.
    And use full-fat sour cream – that’s going to help the flavor too.
    The cake is easy to make.
    Two 8x8x2-inch square cake pans are coated with non-stick spray, lined with parchment, then sprayed again.
    Sugar, butter, and brown sugar are beaten together until light and fluffy, then eggs and vanilla are added and mixed in. A mixture of flour, baking soda and salt is added, then mashed bananas and sour cream are added and beaten in. Mini chocolate chips are folded in.
    The cakes are baked for about 35 minutes. To ensure even baking, halfway through the baking time I switched the position of the pans, and moved the parts that were facing the back to the front. After they are baked, the cakes are cooled for 10 minutes, then turned out of the pans and left to cool completely.
    The frosting is made by beating creamy peanut butter, powdered sugar, room temperature butter and vanilla together.
    The frosting is spread on top of one cake, and the other is put on top. The rest of the frosting is put on the sides and the very top of the cake.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Mexican Noodle Soup:
Just like something Baba would make

Making Sopa de Fideo marked a cooking first for me: Never before have I made a soup with such homestyle comfort food appeal.
    Sopa de Fideo translates as Mexican Noodle Soup (click for the recipe), and I made a pot of it this past Sunday.
    It was an immediate hit with both my husband and I.
    Besides the fact it was absolutely delicious, I also loved that it was so homey, so comforting, thick with noodles and happiness.
    While still having a nice flavor, even the pickiest of the picky eaters will likely give it a chance. It’s absurdly family-friendly.
    It was like a soup my Baba (Ukrainian for grandmother) would make: Warm, simple, beautiful in its simplicity, and tasty, tasty, tasty.
    Although there was a bit of chopping and wait time involved, this was quite an easy soup to make.
    The recipe says it makes six-eight servings, but I would say count on only four if you are serving the soup as the main part of a meal (and it will disappear because it’s so good).
    In the absence of fideos (Mexican noodles) I used the substitute, rice vermicelli noodles, easy to find in the Asian foods section of supermarkets. I used the very thinnest kind available, which seemed to be the right one.
    A local supermarket luckily had queso fresco cheese in stock, so I could use it as directed. There is no recommended substitute in the recipe, but I think you could probably use mozzarella cheese in a pinch, and I have also seen feta suggested as a substitute for queso fresco in other recipes.
    In a large saucepan or soup stock pot, garlic, celery, carrots and onion are cooked in oil until soft, about 10 minutes.
    Chicken stock (I used store-bought chicken broth) and a can of whole tomatoes that have been crushed by hand are added, and the mixture is brought to a boil.
    The liquid is reduced to medium-low and is cooked about one hour. It’s strained through a fine-mesh strainer into another soup pot and is returned to the heat (I did this instead of straining into a bowl, then putting the strained soup back into the original pot, as the recipe directs).
    You may be put off by the fact, as I initially was, that the garlic, celery, carrots and onion are strained out and in effect thrown away (unless you save them for another use).
    But one mouthful or the soup and it will all make sense. The vegetables give the tomatoes and broth a mild salsa-like flavor that’s essential to the success of the soup.
    Fideos and vermicelli noodles are added to the soup and cooked (I did it for about 5 ¼ minutes, as opposed to the four suggested in the recipe).
    To serve, crumbled queso fresco is divided among soup bowls. The soup is ladeled overtop and it is garnished with parsley.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Orange-Scented Carrot Soup a good first outing with Ten Dollar Dinners cookbook

I’ve only caught bits and pieces of a few episodes Melissa d’Arabian’s Food Network TV show, Ten Dollar Dinners, but I liked it enough to buy her first cookbook when it came out in August.
    Named Ten Dollar Dinners like the TV show, the cookbook is full of delicious-looking and nutritious ideas for weeknight meals.
    I tried a recipe from the book for the first time this past week and was very impressed.
    Orange-Scented Carrot Soup (click for the recipe) was quick to make and required few ingredients, but had an amazing depth of flavor.
    The secret ingredient was dried oregano, which infused the soup with an earthy feel.
    The description “Orange-Scented” is a good one – there is a very slight orange taste on the edges of the soup, but nothing at all overwhelming.
    Serve it with some crusty bread and a salad, and you’ve got a great weeknight meal.
    I made this soup by myself, and took about 45 minutes from start to finish without any rushing.
    Roughly-chopped carrots and an onion are cooked in olive oil in a large saucepan or soup pot, then minced garlic, finely-grated orange zest (orange peel) and dried oregano are added and stirred for a bit.
    The recipe I linked to on the Food Network website says to “deglaze the pan with white wine.” The recipe in the cookbook is clearer on this matter, saying to increase the heat to medium-high, add the wine and stir for about a minute.
    Chicken or vegetable stock (I used store-bought vegetable stock) and water are added to the pot, brought to a boil, then reduced to a gentle simmer.
    The soup is cooked for another eight to 10 minutes until the carrots are tender.
    The recipe says to let the mixture cool for five minutes before processing it in a blender or food processor. This is good advice, but if you’re using a hand-held (immersion) blender like I did, you don’t need to wait for the soup to cool first.
    The soup is served with a swirl of sour cream in each bowl.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Apples a surprising and
delicious ingredient in noodle soup

I’ve tried several great Asian-style broth and noodle soup recipes, but never any that called for apples.
    That’s why the recipe for Pork, Apple & Miso Noodle Soup (click for the recipe) stopped me dead in my reading tracks while I was looking at a recent issue of Eating Well magazine.
    Apples? Recipes like these usually call for bok choy, Chinese cabbage, or other such greens.
    I found it intriguing, and so I tried it.
     It was very, very good.
    The apples could be tasted in the soup, but it was not an unusual sensation. Rather, they added a bit of fresh tang.
    The recipe calls for udon noodles, which sometimes cannot be found in the Asian foods section of the supermarket. In Superstore in Canada, for example, they are located in the deli section, and at other supermarkets I have seen them in the produce section with other fresh noodles.
    The recipe also calls for white miso, which is surprising because it looks pale red! Make sure to check on the label that is white miso that you are buying.
    The soup was so amazingly easy to make. I made it myself, and it took only about half an hour to prepare without rushing or feeling stressed. It’s an ideal weeknight meal.
    Ground pork and apples are cooked in a large saucepan or soup pot. Reduced-sodium chicken broth (I used store-bought) and water are added and brought to a boil. The udon noodles are added and cooked according to package directions (the ones I bought called boiling them for three minutes).
    When the noodles are almost done, ½ cup of cooking liquid is scooped out of the pot and combined with the miso (I stirred it until the lumps of miso were completely “dissolved” into the liquid). The miso mixture is stirred into the soup, which is then removed from the heat.
    Serve immediately.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Rosemary and sage add depth
of flavor to rigatoni sauce

Rigatoni in a homemade tomato sauce – I’ve always thought it sounds so comforting and satisfying, although I’ve never had it myself until recently.
    I came across a recipe for Rigatoni in Tomato Sauce (click for the recipe) in Saveur magazine, and I immediately wanted to try it. Not only did it look easy to make, it called for fresh rosemary and sage, which I thought looked interesting and unusual, and I had plenty of both after clipping off the last from our herb plants before the first frost hit.
    It was delicious. The rosemary and sage, along with red wine, lent a lovely depth of flavor to the sauce. With a side salad, crusty bread and perhaps wine, this pasta dish makes for a very satisfying meal.
    The recipe said it makes six to eight servings, but I disagree. I think it makes three comfortable servings.
    Keep in mind that although the recipe is quite easy to make, it does take about one hour to cook the sauce down until it is reduced, requiring a bit of timing foresight. We found it took about 53 minutes at a heat level 1 for the sauce to reduce.
    The recipe called for canned whole, peeled tomatoes in juice. I was only able to find cans labeled “whole tomatoes,” and so I bought one of those. It seemed to me the tomatoes inside were peeled, so it satisfied the recipe’s requirements.
    Carrots, onion, garlic, and springs of rosemary and sage are cooked in a saucepan, and red wine is added. The mixture is cooked for five minutes, and the tomatoes are added. The sauce is brought to a boil (this takes only about a minute), then the heat is reduced to medium-low and the sauce cooked, being stirred occasionally, for about an hour until reduced.
    The herb stalks are discarded, and the sauce is puréed in a blender.
    Meanwhile, the rigatoni is cooked (the recipe said to do it until al dente, but I boiled it until the tender stage). One cup of the water the rigatoni is boiled in is reserved, and the pasta drained.
    The pasta and sauce are tossed in a bowl, with pasta water being added as needed to create a smooth sauce.
    The rigatoni is served sprinkled with fresh parsley and grated pecorino romano or mozzarella cheese (we used pecorino romano).

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Chicken Pot Pie in half the time? Yes, please!

I’ve always dreamed of making a real, honest-to-goodness chicken pot pie with no shortcuts – mainly, no store-bought pastry.
    But I’ve hesitated when considering the possible time involved to make a chicken pot pie entirely from scratch.
    That’s why, when I saw an article in a recent special Cook’s Illustrated publication titled “Chicken Pot Pie in half the time,” you can bet I gave it a look.
    The article promised the Chicken Pot Pie with Savory Crumble Topping (click for the recipe) recipe would not only take less time to make than a traditional chicken pot pie, there would be no sacrifice in flavor.
    The final result was absolutely delicious, and just as I dreamed good homemade chicken pot pie should be. There was definitely no sacrifice in flavor, and the savory crumble topping is actually a tasty step up from a usual chicken pot pie crust.
    However, it did still take a full two hours and 15 minutes of solid work to make on my own.
    If that means it takes nearly five hours to make chicken pot pie with a full homemade crust, count me very glad to have found this “shortcut” version that uses a crumble topping instead.
    I found this chicken pot pie to be best on the day it was made. It will serve four people easily.
    The recipe I linked to above is on a blog, but it is nearly the same as the one I used from the Cook’s Illustrated magazine – note the few differences below, which are in bold.
    Chicken thighs and store-bought low-sodium chicken broth are brought to a simmer. The thighs are simmered until they are cooked through (about eight minutes), then are transferred to a bowl. The broth is poured through a fine mesh strainer into a bowl or measuring cup and set aside (ie., don’t pour it down the sink!!!)
    The topping is made by combining flour, baking powder, salt, pepper and cayenne pepper in a large bowl. Cubes of butter are sprinkled in, and the butter incorporated into the flour with fingers until it resembles cornmeal. Grated parmesan cheese, then heavy cream are stirred in until combined.
   Curiously, the recipe doesn’t say to scatter the dough by ½ inch pieces onto the parchment-lined baking sheet, and it should. After the dough is made, the recipe says simply to place it on the baking sheet. That’s wrong! You don’t want one giant blob of dough being baked – you want small pieces.
    In the same Dutch oven in which the chicken was cooked, onion, carrots and celery are cooked in oil. The chicken is shredded into bite-size pieces in the bowl it is in, and the veggies are added.
    The mushrooms are then cooked in the same Dutch oven, then soy sauce and tomatoes are added and cooked more until the liquid has evaporated and mushrooms have browned. The mushrooms are transferred to the bowl with the chicken and veggies.
    Butter is melted in the pot, then flour, the reserved chicken broth and whole milk are whisked together and simmered. Be sure to let the mixture come to a full simmer, then whisk it constantly for about one minute at the simmering stage until it thickens slightly.
    Lemon juice and parsley are added to the sauce, then the chicken and vegetable mixture are added to the pot.
    The mixture is poured into a 13x9 inch glass baking dish, and the crumble topping is scattered over evenly.
    Bake until the filling is bubbling, about 12 to 15 minutes.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Ham is used instead of ground beef
in twist on the ol' meatloaf

It’s a bit of a holy grail of cooking: How to take the ubiquitous, easy-to-make comfort food of meatloaf and make it into something refreshing and new.
     I’m always on the lookout for new twists on the ol’ meatloaf, and found it recently in an issue of Saveur magazine.
     The recipe’s name isn’t different or exciting – Ham Loaf (click for the recipe) – but the result is. However, the recipe's result is not so much different from regular meatloaf that you will disturb the meat-and-potatoes eater in your family when you serve it to him or her.
    The major difference between this recipe and meat loaf is, of, course, that ham is used as opposed to ground beef.
    Ground allspice, ginger and cloves are used in the recipe for flavour. It sounds unusual, but after one bite you’ll know it was meant to be.
    Some of the usual suspects included in most meatloaf recipes are here, though. A glaze is made from mustard, dark brown sugar and apple cider vinegar and is drizzled on the loaf before and after baking.
    The recipe says to start with finely-chopped cured ham. Knowing I would not have the patience to finely chop ham, I threw a few hunks of it in the food processor and let it do the work.
    The chopped ham, breadcrumbs, buttermilk, Dijon mustard, ground sage, curry powder (I used mild), allspice, ginger, lightly-beaten eggs, minced yellow onion, and salt and pepper are mixed together. The meat mixture is transferred to a parchment paper-lined loaf pan.
    More Dijon mustard, dark brown sugar and apple cider vinegar (sometimes called cider vinegar) are heated in a saucepan until the sugar dissolves.
    Half of the resulting glaze is poured over the ham loaf, and the loaf is cooked.
    The loaf is left to cool for 10 minutes, then is removed from the pan. The remaining glaze is drizzled over it before serving.

Friday, September 14, 2012

The secret to good Swiss chard: Cooking it

When I was a kid, I hated Swiss chard.
    Like, really hated it.
     My parents grew it in their garden, and often threw it raw into salads.
   I hated the bitter taste, the texture, and the grit that just didn’t seem to want to wash off the leaves.
   But recently, while we were on vacation, my husband’s aunt served us cooked Swiss chard.
    After not having it for about 25 years, I gave it a taste.
    I was so relieved – I liked it! Gone was the bitter taste that I remember from my childhood.
    I soon realized, especially after reading a recipe that used Swiss chard, that mature leaves taste bitter unless they are cooked. (Young leaves can be served raw).
    This must have been the cause of my childhood Swiss chard hatred – it was served raw to my delicate tastebuds.
    With this mystery solved, I picked up a beautiful bunch of Swiss chard at a farmer’s market recently and set out to cook it using the recipe I had found.
    We tossed the chard, tomatoes and feta with linguine, and it was a winning dish.
    But my husband and I agreed that the cooked chard on its own would have been absolutely delicious, too – we sampled some bites of the chard by itself. I would not hesitate to serve it as a side dish.
    It had a terrific salty taste, aided by the garlic and kosher salt with which it was cooked.  
    And it was a breeze to make.
    Know that Swiss chard is like spinach: When its leaves are cooked, they wilt to a mere shadow of their former raw selves. I bought a huge bunch at the farmer’s market and found it weighed just one pound! I adjusted the recipe amounts accordingly.
    The recipe I linked to is for a basic Sautéed Swiss Chard recipe, with several variations listed below it. This time around, we made the version with Sun-Dried Tomatoes & Feta, the last one on the list.
    Swiss chard is washed to remove grit. The stems are cut off, and each leaf is cut in half lengthwise by slicing down the center rib. The halved leaves are stacked and cut in half again crosswise.
    Olive oil is heated in a skillet. In batches, the Swiss chard is piled into the pan, and turned and tossed gently until the leaves begin to wilt and turn glossy. A new batch of leaves is added as the previous batch wilts and makes room for more.
    When all the chard is wilted, finely-chopped garlic and some kosher salt is sprinkled in and tossed well. The heat is lowered, and the chard covered and cooked for a few minutes. The lid is removed, then a pinch of red pepper flakes is added. The chard is cooked for a couple more minutes so that much of the liquid evaporates (my husband found this took just one minute more).
    Sun-dried tomato halves are drained and cut into thin strips, and are tossed with crumbled feta cheese and chopped fresh thyme.
    The cooked chard and the sun-dried tomato mixture are tossed together. Serve immediately.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Tomato and gin get together,
not in a cocktail, but in a soup

I’ve only heard of tomatoes getting together with alcohol in two ways: A Bloody Mary cocktail (tomato juice + vodka), or a Caesar cocktail (Clamato juice + vodka – apparently this drink is Canadian thing).
   So when I saw the recipe titled Tomato-Gin Soup (click for the recipe), my curiosity was peaked. 
   I clipped it out a few years ago from Gourmet magazine and filed it away in my to-do recipes pile.
   When I came home from the farmer’s market last week with a bag of gorgeous ripe tomatoes, I knew it was time to take the recipe for a test drive.
   It was OUTSTANDING, as I told my personal Facebook pals. My husband and I agreed it could stand up as a starter soup in a good restaurant.
   The soup was a perfectly creamy consistency, with a lovely tomato taste. Cream, a key ingredient, seemed to add a bit of a cheese flavor, which was absolutely welcome.
   It was quite easy to make. The recipe I linked to above is on a blog, but is exactly the same as the one I used from Gourmet magazine.
   In a large soup pot, chopped onion is cooked in butter, then halved tomatoes, a chopped russet potato, tomato paste, bay leaves, chicken or vegetable broth (I used store-bought chicken broth), and salt and pepper are added. The mixture is brought to a boil, then simmered briskly for 30 minutes.
   The bay leaves are discarded, then the soup is puréed. The recipe says to do this in a couple of batches in a blender, but my husband used a hand-held immersion blender.
   The soup is strained through a fine-mesh sieve. Since my husband used a handheld blender and the soup was still in the pot in which it was made, he strained it into another large soup pot (with my help – I held onto the sieve handle so it wouldn’t tip up).
   Cream (or milk or half-and-half) is stirred into the soup, along with gin, nutmeg (I used ¼ tsp dried nutmeg as opposed to the ¾ tsp grated listed in the recipe), and salt. The soup is simmered gently for 10 minutes.
   More cream is beaten with an electric mixer until it holds soft peaks.
   To serve, the soup is ladled into bowls and a dollop of whipped cream is put on top. The cream will spread out on the soup.         

Friday, September 7, 2012

Mom's garden tomatoes make
for excellent raw pasta sauce

My mother recently gave me a bag filled with tomatoes from her garden.
   Holding the lovely prize in my hands, I knew exactly what I was going to make with it. I wanted to try a recipe for a raw tomato sauce for pasta I’d seen earlier in the summer. I remember it looking fresh and simple, the perfect vehicle for Mom’s tomatoes.
   I went home and dug out the recipe for Fusilli with Raw Tomato Sauce (click for the recipe) and took it for a whirl, and it worked very well.
   The garden tomatoes were a good start for the excellent final result, but it was helped along by basil from our herb garden and top-quality olive oil and balsamic vinegar. The recipe calls for plum tomatoes, but my Mom’s were the common garden variety, and they worked well.
   Although the sauce doesn’t need any cooking, it is nicely warmed as it is tossed with freshly-boiled pasta and left to sit 15 minutes at room temperature. This helps to infuse the pasta with the flavors of the sauce and warm the sauce as well. The recipe doesn’t say to cover the pasta while it is sitting for this 15-minute period, but I did to help keep in the heat.
   Although the recipe is very easy to make, the sauce does need to sit for an hour at room temperature for the flavors to develop, so it takes a little extra time.
   The recipe directs to halve the tomatoes, discard the pulp and cut the flesh into ¾” pieces. I took this to mean trimming the top and bottom of the tomatoes, cutting them in half and scraping out the seeds before chopping.
   Olive oil, balsamic vinegar, red wine vinegar are whisked together. The chopped tomatoes are added and squeezed to slightly bruise them and release their juices. Fresh basil, salt and pepper are stirred in. The bowl is covered and left for one hour at room temperature to marinate the tomatoes.
   Dry fusilli (I used Catelli Smart) is boiled, drained and returned to the pot. The tomato mixture is poured over and stirred evenly to incorporate into the pasta.
   The pasta is left to stand at room temperature for 15 minutes.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The time of fresh corn, tomatoes, cucumbers and zucchini changes my attitude about September

Recently on my personal Facebook account I posted how I used to hate the beginning of September as a kid, because it meant school, a.k.a. “the 10-month prison sentence,” was beginning again.
   A couple of my Facebook pals replied that they were surprised anyone could hate the beginning of September – they used to love, and still love today, the prospect of a new school year starting.
   The whole point of making the post was to eventually say I don’t hate the beginning of September anymore. Mostly because I’m long past my school years, I don’t think about school starting anymore – I think of it as the start of the beautiful season of fall, which means I can get back to making warm soup again. And, early September is the time for the best fresh corn, tomatoes, certain varieties of cucumbers and zucchini.
   Which brings me to today’s featured recipes for a side dish and a salad that make wonderful use of corn, tomatoes and cucumbers.

Couscous with Corn and Blue Cheese (click for the recipe) struck me as an unusual-looking recipe, combining, just as the title suggests, corn, couscous and blue cheese.
   The combination intrigued me and the recipe looked easy to make, so I gave it a try. It was terrific.
   My husband rightly observed that the blue cheese flavor seemed to spread out in the entire salad, but in a delicate, non-obtrusive and welcome way. This may have been helped by the fact I took the time to sort of mush the pieces of crumbled blue cheese into the salad, which the recipe doesn’t say to do.
   Butter is melted in a four-quart saucepan, and chopped fresh thyme is added and cooked until fragrant. Fresh corn kernels, sliced scallions (also known as green onions or spring onions), and salt are added and cooked briefly. Couscous is added, along with a cup of boiling water and a pinch of cayenne pepper.
   The mixture is removed from the heat, covered, and left to stand for five minutes. The couscous and corn is fluffed with a fork, and the crumbled blue cheese is stirred in.
   Serve hot or at room temperature.

Melon, Tomato & Onion Salad with Goat Cheese (click for the recipe) is a refreshing combination of melon, sweet onion, tomatoes, cucumbers, goat cheese and basil.
   It can be a meal in itself, or a side dish, which is the way I preferred it, alongside the grilled chicken we ate with it.
   The recipe says it makes eight servings. I disagree with that – I’d say it’s more like four to six side-salad servings and two to three main-dish servings.
   I halved the recipe ingredients, and found it yielded two nicely-sized side salads.
   To be more accurate, I halved everything except the melon. I used the entire melon, as is called for in the “eight serving” version, because I didn’t want to use any of the rind, only the very soft part of the melon.
   The rings of thinly-sliced sweet onion are placed in a medium bowl, and cold water and ice cubes are added, a measure intended to reduce the sharp bite of the raw onions. The onions sit in water for 20 minutes before being drained and patted dry.
   A melon (I used honeydew) is cut, the seeds are scooped out, and the rind removed. The melon halves are sliced crosswise into 1/8th-inch slices. I didn’t worry at all how the slices looked, just as long as they were slim.
   On individual plates or a large platter, layers of melon and sliced tomato are overlapped, then cucumber slices tucked between those layers.
   The salad(s) are sprinkled with salt and pepper, topped with crumbled goat cheese and the onion rings, drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and topped with thinly-sliced fresh basil.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The best recipes I reviewed this summer

While I dare not suggest that summer is over, as even here in Saskatchewan, Canada, we've got at least three more weeks of nice warm weather, I did want to write about the best recipes I reviewed over the past three months. It may give you some ideas on what to make for any Labor Day celebrations this weekend.
   Here the recipes I've written about since the beginning of June that will knock everyone's socks, or tastebuds, off:

American-Style Ice Cream: Even I was a little dumbfounded by how well this recipe worked. Using a few simple ingredients and an ice cream maker, this recipe yielded creamy, flavorful ice cream that was better than store-bought anyday. I made the blackberry-sage variety, but there are other varieties to make too.

Grilled Romaine and Halloumi Cheese with Mint Vinaigrette: The first recipe where we tried grilling halloumi, and romaine lettuce, for that matter, and we were amazed at the resulting flavor. This is a weeknight-easy recipe that could also be served at a casual dinner party.

Grilled Halloumi with Watermelon and Basil-Mint Oil: Halloumi hit a home run again. This time, its salty, gooey goodness is paired with refreshing watermelon.

Pink Lady Milkshakes: These strawberry milkshakes spiked with dark rum are a really fun way to serve dessert at a backyard barbecue. I served these to my in-laws and sister-in-law while on summer vacation, and they loved it. Skip the rum for children or those who would prefer it non-alcoholic.

Ice Cream Soda with Lime, Mint and Ginger: Another fun dessert to serve for a backyard barbecue, these retro-but-modern sodas are definite refreshers.

Sage and Garlic Grilled Tomatoes: Grilling tomatoes releases an even deeper flavor, and fresh sage is a winning crown. Serve these with steaks and people will be overjoyed.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Grilling tomatoes and topping them
with sage releases warm, earthy flavor

One of life’s great pleasures, I believe, is eating a ripe tomato sprinkled with coarse salt during the tomato heaven months of August and September.
   But grill those same seasonal tomatoes and you’ve got an even greater delicacy on your hands, I discovered recently upon making Sage and Garlic Grilled Tomatoes (click for the recipe) with my husband.
   These tomatoes were extremely delicious.
   The grilling warmed the tomato, loosening its skin and amplifying and deepening its wonderful taste.
   The olive oil (make sure to use a good one if you can), coarse salt and garlic worked their flavor magic, but the fresh sage sprinkled on top is the masterful crowning gesture of this terrific recipe.
   The sage lent an extra earthiness, marrying perfectly with the deep tomato taste. The recipe says other types of herbs can be used, but I highly recommend going with the sage.
   These tomatoes would be a wonderful side to a luscious grilled steak.
   The recipe says to use plum tomatoes, but I used medium-sized tomatoes-on-the-vine instead. I cut off the bottoms and tops of each tomato so they could stand upright on an even base, then proceeded to cover them with olive oil, salt, garlic and sage.
   The recipe includes a ton of information on how to grill the tomatoes on different types of grills, including indoor grills.
   We used the very top section of grilling information for contact grills, where the tomatoes are left upright with the sage on top and cooked for four to six minutes.
    After the tomatoes are grilled, they are served immediately.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Four drinks to cool off your summer

During the summer, I love to make cold drinks.
   I make it a priority on weekends to mix up at least one pitcher of something refreshing, be it alcoholic or non-alcoholic.
   Recently I’ve tried four new drink recipes that my husband and I really enjoyed.

Minted Vodka Lemonade (click for the recipe) from Bon Appetit magazine is wonderfully boozy and tart libation that will cut through the summer heat like a knife. It makes a terrific pre-meal cocktail while the steaks are grilling.
   And it’s so easy to make.
   Chopped mint leaves, sugar (I used Splenda instead), fresh lemon juice and vodka are combined in a large bowl and left to refrigerate for 30 minutes or up to two hours. The mixture is strained into a pitcher.
   Glasses are filled with crushed ice and the lemonade is poured over. I used a small electric chopper to make the crushed ice.

Rosemary-Infused Cucumber Lemonade (click for the recipe) isn’t as crowd-friendly as the Minted Vodka Lemonade above. It’s refreshing and delicious, but I could see some people finding it a bit on the weird side. Save this drink for foodie or vegetarian friends.
   The version I linked to above is non-alcoholic. However, you can add gin to the mixture and make the alcoholic version, called Cucumber-Lemonade Chiller (click for the recipe). The gin, I’m predicting, would be a wonderful addition to the drink.
   Cucumber is peeled and chopped and puréed in a food processor with fresh rosemary. The purée is strained into a bowl or pitcher, and water, fresh lemon juice and agave syrup are added and stirred in. Refrigerate until cold, and serve over ice. I skipped the cucumber and rosemary garnish on the drinks.

For those of you who like a subtle-tasting iced tea that doesn’t attack you with sweetness, I recommend Garden Green Iced Tea (click for the recipe). It’s got a nice, easygoing herbal thing going on.
   As the title suggests, this iced tea is a combination of green tea and fresh garden herbs.
   Water, mint, basil, sage and honey are combined in a saucepan and brought to a boil. Green tea bags are added and left to steep.
   The recipe doesn’t say to do this, but I took the green tea bags out before pouring the tea into a pitcher. Once the tea is in the pitcher (don’t strain the herbs out), water is added. The tea is refrigerated and served over ice.

Orange-Earl Grey Iced Tea (click for the recipe) is sweeter than Garden Green Iced Tea, making it more of a general crowd-pleaser. The orange flavor is a wonderful addition to traditional iced tea.
   Earl Grey tea bags or loose Earl Grey tea and orange peel are steeped in boiling water for three to five minutes.
   The tea is strained, or the orange peel and tea bags removed. The tea is poured into a pitcher, and fresh orange juice, sugar (I used Splenda instead), and cold water are added and stirred in.
   Refrigerate until cold, and serve over ice.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Two salad recipes to put tomatoes,
corn and cucumbers to delicious work

With backyard gardens and farmers markets about to burst forth with summer vegetables, it’s a good time to have some salad recipes at the ready to use them up nicely.
   I recently tried a couple of recipes that will give tomatoes, corn, and cucumbers the delicious honor they deserve.

The first is Tomato and Corn Salad with Marjoram (click for the recipe), a fresh and reliable salad that goes wonderfully with all types of grilled meat.
   Marjoram is a type of herb not commonly found in supermarkets, but luckily we grew it in our herb garden this year and were able to use it. I can offer a substitution, however: Fresh oregano. I’m sure that herb, easier to find in supermarkets, will do just as well in the salad.
   Four ears of fresh corn, husked, are cooked in a large pot of boiling salted water, about five minutes. This cooking time at a high boil leaves the kernels perfectly tender.
   After the corn is cooled, the kernels are cut from the cobs. A good way to do this is to stand a cooked cob, smaller end down, into the tube of an angel food cake pan, then strip the kernels away with a knife.
   Olive oil and red wine vinegar are whisked together, and the corn, chopped tomatoes, feta cheese and marjoram are added. The mixture is tossed until the oil coats the tomatoes and corn.
   I skipped serving the salad on lettuce leaves.

The second recipe is Cucumber, Basil and Peanut Salad (click for the recipe).
   This refreshing salad is a wonderful combination of cool, with the cucumber and herbs, and salty tastes thanks to fish sauce, rice vinegar and salted peanuts.
   The recipe says to preferably use Thai basil, but said Italian basil or mint could be used instead. I didn’t have Thai basil, so I decided on a substitute combination of Italian basil and mint, about 1/8 cup of each. It worked wonderfully.
   This salad is amazingly easy to make.
   Rice vinegar, sesame oil, lime juice and fish sauce are whisked together. Cucumbers that have been cut into crescent-shaped pieces, basil and/or mint, and coarsely-chopped salted peanuts are added to the dressing and are tossed to coat.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Stone-Fruit Bars: Not something that the Flintstones would serve, but a dessert using cherries, peaches, nectarines or plums

Stone-Fruit Bars: The name made me think it was something the Flintstones would have eaten for dessert when they invited Mr. Slate over for supper.
   But the stone fruit in Stone-Fruit Bars (click for the recipe), of course, refers to the fact that any type of fruit with a pit or stone such as cherries, peaches, nectarines or plums can be used in the bars. For that matter, any combination of stone fruits can be used.
   When I made these, I used cherries when they were first coming into season in June.
   The bars were delicious, with a chewy crust made of chopped nuts or rolled oats covered by a substantial fruit filling.
   I was most impressed with the fact the bars tasted like cherry pie. I highly recommend serving them with vanilla ice cream to get the full pie-taste effect.
   While I used cherries, I’m sure any type of stone fruit will work very well. Peaches, nectarines and plums are at their glorious best right now, just begging to be used in this dessert.
   The crust is made by combining chopped walnuts, pecans, almonds or hazelnuts, or old-fashioned rolled oats, with whole-wheat flour, sugar and salt in a food processor and pulsing until the nuts, if using, are finely ground. Cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces, are added and pulsed until well incorporated.
   A mixture of egg, canola oil, vanilla and almond extract is whisked together, then added to the food processor with the motor running. When the mixture begins to clump, it is ready. A half cup of the crust dough is mixed with more chopped nuts and is set aside for the topping.
   Four cups of chopped fruit, orange juice, sugar and cornstarch are combined in a large saucepan and simmered until the mixture is very thick. Two more cups of chopped fruit and vanilla are stirred in.
   The crust dough is put into a 9x13” baking dish and pressed in evenly. The fruit filling is spread over the crust, and reserved topping is sprinkled over.
   The bars are baked. When serving, be sure to add a scoop of vanilla ice cream to the plate.