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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

cozy, hearty soup & salad

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hearty minestrone with buttermilk ranch salad

When it comes to cooking and meal planning, I take inspiration from a huge variety of sources, influences and cuisines.  I like to mix it up.  Sometimes we eat a lot of meat.  Sometimes no meat.  Sometimes complicated.  Sometimes simple.  Sometimes spicy.  Sometimes herbacious.  Sometimes sweet.  Sometimes salty.  The way I see it, the world is a giant smorgasbord of inspirational deliciousness, and I want to help myself to the best.  ;)

Not that I'm selfish or anything.

One of my go-to sites for the last 10 years has been; epi was doing social media and web 2.0 before any of us even knew what that was.  When I first discovered them (and I've been saving recipes since 2001 on there), I loved it because I could see feedback from other people who'd made the recipe (i.e., they allowed comments; nobody else was doing this back then).  I could see reviews from people who'd made the recipe, and best of all, I could save everything in my own personalized recipe box.

Now, pretty much every site (including this one, naturally), allows comments.  And with Pinterest, we've pretty much eliminated the need for a site-specific recipe box (though I will continue to use epicurious!).  And there are hundreds of thousands of blogs and cooking websites out there.  And with this overwhelming amount of choice, it can actually be a bit intimidating to start a recipe search.

So with that in mind, and despite all this endless choice, sometimes I still retreat to my trusty cookbook shelf.  It's not a huge shelf, and I don't let just anyone have shelf space, but I have a few tried and true cookbooks that I keep around because they are fabulous.

One such pair is Clean Food and Clean Start (Terry Walters).  These are seasonally-based vegan cookbooks using natural, healthy ingredients.  First, I love the covers (which is shallow, I wholeheartedly admit, and it looks like the revised edition of Clean Food has a photographic cover, rather than the solid green cover with the half-jacket of the original edition, but the originals are pretty and I like them).  I also love the seasonal approach to cooking, using what's best from each season.  These aren't generally the recipes I serve to guests, as they do tend to have that distinctive wholesome flavour that is not necessarily universally enjoyed (but I love).  Anyway, bottom line, before I ramble too much more, these are great cookbooks for when you want to feel good about what you're eating.

And after a weekend of endless treats and sweets, I really felt like we needed to step back a bit and enjoy something healthy and wholesome.  But still tasty.  ;)

So I took inspiration from the hearty minestrone recipe in Clean Start, and went from there.  My version was not vegetarian/vegan, because I used a combination of chicken/beef broth (it's what I had).  Obviously, this is a very simple substitution.  I used different beans, because I have a massive container of 9-bean mix that I got from Costco.  I just soaked them the night before and let them bubble away for about an hour during the afternoon.  Nothing wrong with canned beans either though.  ;)  1.5 cups of bean mix made about 4.5 cups of cooked beans.

hearty minestrone with buttermilk ranch salad

And my salad dressing is not vegan either, but it's really darn good, so you should make it.  I have a hard time with bottled dressings now; I do generally keep a bottle or two in my fridge for when I'm feeling really lazy, but I find the saltiness and added flavourings are just overpowering.  Nothing like the pure deliciousness of homemade salad dressings, bright and fresh with herbs and garlic.  Also, I had buttermilk that needed using up, so this homemade buttermilk ranch dressing was a great way to do that.

hearty minestrone soup
inspired, but modified due to circumstances, from Clean Start; don't be afraid to modify based on what you have available!)
hearty minestrone with buttermilk ranch salad

1 medium yellow onion, diced
(3 stalks celery, diced) --> I was out!
1 T olive oil
3 carrots, sliced
3 cups chopped tomatoes (I drained a can and chopped those)
4.5 cups beans (chickpeas, kidney, black beans, etc. --> this is about 3 cans)
1 head broccoli with stems, chopped
1.5 cups chopped green beans (I was out; I chopped up some bok choy instead; any green would work!)
5 cups stock
1 T balsamic vinegar
2 t herbes de provence (or a mixture of fresh herbs, if you have them!)
1 bay leaf
salt, pepper to taste

1. In a big soup pot, sauté onion, celery and carrot of medium heat, about 5 minutes.

hearty minestrone with buttermilk ranch salad

2. Add tomatoes, beans, broccoli, stock, green beans/greens, balsamic vinegar, bay leaf and herbes de provence.  And lots of pepper.

hearty minestrone with buttermilk ranch salad

3.  Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer about 30 minutes (until carrots/celery are done).  Remove from heat, discard bay leaf and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Serves 8.

buttermilk ranch dressing
hearty minestrone with buttermilk ranch salad

2 green onions, chopped
2 T fresh basil
1 t dried dill
2 T lemon juice
2 T dijon mustard
1 T olive oil
2 cloves garlic
1/2 t salt, pepper to taste
1/3 c mayonnaise
1/3 c miracle whip/whipped salad dressing (if you only have mayo, use all mayo, but add about 1 t sugar and 1 t vinegar)
1/3 c greek yogourt
1/2 c buttermilk

1.  In a food processor/immersion blender, combine the onions, basil, dill, lejon juice, dijon, olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper.  Process until relatively smooth.

hearty minestrone with buttermilk ranch salad

2. Add mayo, miracle whip, greek yogourt and buttermilk. Process again.  Taste, and use on salad, or as a dip.  It's super yummy!  I had mine on a mâche mix, but it would be good on anything.  The recipe makes about 2 cups.

Hubs and Lil Z had theirs with garlic toast (SO EASY - make toast, rub with fresh cut garlic.  Voila.  Garlic toast.), but I just stuck with the soup and salad.  It was hearty and filling and I'm very stoked to eat more of it for my lunch today.

hearty minestrone with buttermilk ranch salad

Monday, October 15, 2012

i forgot how much i love having dinner parties

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when in doubt add more bacon

Before we had kids, hubs and I used to host dinner parties pretty often; not monthly, but probably at least every couple of months, we'd have people over for a nice fancy dinner party.

Since we and others we know have started having babies, that has fallen a bit to the wayside; part of it is that I'm a little too tired and short on time to host, part of it is that my dinner parties don't tend to be so kid-friendly.  Now, it's not that I think kids won't eat the food, it's just that the timing of a four-five course meal is not a reasonable amount of time for a kid to sit still or keep out of trouble (Z would happily gobble all of this food), and they tend to go too late for kids.

Anyway, my solution is that I invite people over close to bedtime, so Lil Z and Lil R can charm my guests for an hour (okay, maybe they just annoy them, lol), partake in appetizers (only Z; R is too little!), and then be whisked off to bed.

It works quite well.

And this time, I was extra excited, because I wasn't navigating a long list of food restrictions.  I've posted in my Dinner Party 101 series before that catering to your guests is key to having a good dinner party, and I do maintain that stance BUT it's always nice when the guests just come with an enthusiasm for food in general.  :)  And wine, but we'll get to that later.

So going back to how I plan a party (and I'm going to apologize in advance for the shoddy quality/quantity of the photos; I was having too much fun and kept forgetting, and then I maybe had too much wine and lost most of my ability to photograph.   These pics are so terrible, I'm not sure they add anything to the post, but hey, it's what I've got.

I don't have a photo of the actual caramelized onion, bacon and gruyère dip, but this is what the dish looked like at the end.  I think it speaks for itself.

dinner party!

For me, the key to having fun and relaxing and enjoying is that I like to have pretty much everything done in advance.  I don't want to be fussing over things while all the fun happens out in the dining room.  So I don't tend to serve things like seared scallops, risotto, etc., that require too much last minute energy.

Here's my menu - and I'll go into the how-to in a minute.  The recipes without a link (i.e., the original ones) are posted at the bottom of this post.

Appetizer - caramelized onion, bacon and gruyère dip, served with endive and cucumber slices
First course - thai green curry mussels served in a coconut broth, with 5-minute no-knead bread
Salad - spinach, red onion slivers, parmesan shards, pear slices and toasted pecans with a simple balsamic vinaigrette
Main - bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin with a wild mushroom sauce (recipes below), served with pureed celery root and bacon-braised french lentils
Dessert - chocolate pots de creme with an orange whipped cream (1 c whipping cream, 3 T icing sugar, zest of one orange)

I'm not gonna lie, it was pretty darn good.  So what I do with a menu like this is that I break it down into components, and I write myself a schedule for those components, and cross things off my list as I go.

So here was my list:
- mix together bread
- make dip
- prep endive and cucumber
- prep celery root puree
- prep lentils
- make pots de crème

- bake bread
- prep pork, make sauce for pork
- clean and pick through mussels, mise en place for sauce ingredients
- whip cream
- toast pecans
- make salad vinaigrette

See?  Not so hard when you break it down.

Then, I have a little schedule for myself.  For this dinner, it went something like this (all times approximate and very, very flexible)

7: 00 - bake dip, put cucumber and endive on platter

7:30 - guests arrive - set out platter, serve drinks

8:00 - (kids off to bed!) preheat stove, cook mussels;  While mussels are cooking (they take 8 minutes), shove pork in oven, put celery root in microwave to reheat, and put lentils on the stove on very low heat to reheat (this is about 3 minutes worth of work)

8:15 - mussels served with bread.  and more drinks.

8:45 - prep salad (assemble components, drizzle dressing).  Check temperature of pork (needs to register 145F in the thickest part; use the oven timer and just check every 10 minutes.  Remove from oven and let it rest once it gets to the right temperature).  About 5 minutes in the kitchen.  Serve salad.  With more drinks.

9:15 - While pork is resting, reheat the celery root in the microwave.  Slice pork and serve with sauce (takes 2 seconds on the stove to reheat), celery and lentils.  About 5 minutes in the kitchen.  And more drinks.

dinner party!

(much wine and conversation ensues)

whenever seems appropriate - serve dessert with coffee and digestifs, if desired.  We served dessert at 1 am.  ;)  Pots de crème (or any other custard-type dessert) is great because you just take it out of the fridge and top it with whipped cream.  Again, only about 5 minutes in the kitchen.  They are yummy, but this photo is so blurry, you can barely tell what it is!

dinner party!

When we have dinner parties, I'm in charge of food, and hubs is in charge of drinks; i.e., keeping the water pitcher filled, and keeping the wine flowing (and possibly policing if someone is driving, but thankfully our guests cabbed it so we didn't have to worry about that).  This division of labour works well for us, because it means that one person isn't constantly in the kitchen; you alternate a bit.

Anyway, I will say that a great time was had by all, and leave you with the wisdom that while it might SEEM like a good idea to stay up and drink wine until 3:30 am, it seems like a much less good idea at 7 am when the kids are up for the day.

bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin with mushroom sauce
dinner party!

2 pork tenderloins
1 package of bacon (14 slices)
1 T olive oil
1 T dijon mustard
1 T grainy mustard
1 T dark brown sugar
1 T bbq sauce
2 cloves minced garlic
1 T minced rosemary
1 t dried thyme
salt, pepper

1. Whisk together olive oil, mustards, sugar, bbq sauce, garlic, and spices.

2. On a platter/cutting board, arrange the bacon so there are 2 sets of 7 slices side-by-side, to wrap around your pork.

3. Place a tenderloin on in the middle of the bacon (so the slices can wrap around the pork).  Smear half of the olive oil/mustard mixture on each pork tenderloin (while it's on the bacon).

4. Wrap the bacon around the pork, and then secure with kitchen twine.  You could probably also just cook it seam side down if you didn't have kitchen twine.

5. Let marinate for a few hours.

6. To cook - preheat oven to 425F.  Put pork in oven (I put mine in a rack in a pan, so the bacon fat could drip.  I also put 1 cup of water in the pan, so I wouldn't have to smell burning bacon fat as it dripped onto the pan).  Clean up is easier if you line the pan with foil.  ;)

7.  Cook for about 35-45 minutes, until the thickest part of the pork measures at least 145F (you can go as high as 160F and it will still be pretty moist).  Let rest for at least 10 minutes.  Remove twine, slice and serve.

mushroom sauce
1 package dried wild mushrooms (about 14g)
1 cup boiling water
2 T butter
1/4 c minced shallot
1/2 c sherry/marsala (sweetish fortified wine)
LOTS of pepper, some salt
3/4 c whipping cream

1. Reconstitute the mushrooms in the boiling water (you may need more than 1 cup; this is fine).  Let them soak for about 15-20 minutes.  Strain, but keep the soaking liquid.  Chop the mushrooms.

2. Heat a pot over medium-high heat.  Add butter, and before the butter burns (but after it browns), add shallots.  Sauté for 2-3 minutes.  Add chopped mushrooms, saute until most of the liquid is out of the mushrooms and things are starting to stick/brown a bit.  Add the sherry/marsala.  Let it reduce until it's almost evaporated.  Add the soaking liquid.  Turn heat to high.  Once the liquid has reduced to about half of what it was, add a ton of fresh-ground pepper, and the whipping cream.  Keep the heat high until the liquid is  reduced to about 1/4 of what it was before, and it nice and thick.  The key to a recipe like this is having the patience to wait until the liquids thicken.  It takes forever, so I like to do it in advance.  The result is a rich, creamy, concentrated sauce and this particular sauce is delicious on almost anything - mashed potatoes, chicken, steak, pork, rice, etc.  It's yummy, and it's also vegetarian and gluten-free. I make this up in advance and just reheat before serving.

Thanks for reading and sorry for the shoddy pics.  Maybe next time, a little less wine and a little more focus, huh?

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

caramel date cake with pecans

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caramel-date cake with pecans

I'm not sure if I'm doing something wrong, but this cake is always ugly.  I've made it four times now, and every time I, this is uuuuuuuuuuggggly....but it's so delicious, and it smells so incredible that I keep making it.

And I still don't like dates.  I still think they look like cockroaches and completely refuse to eat them in an un-baked, un-chopped state.  They aren't quite as bad when they are chopped.

caramel-date cake with pecans

Anyway, I got this recipe from a great cookbook called Quinoa 365 (fabulous, fabulous, fabulous...loads of recipes including whole quinoa, quinoa flakes and quinoa flour; I've tried many of them and they've all been really good).  However, in reading my recipe, you'll notice that I don't make it with quinoa flour...not that it isn't good that way (I've made it with the flour before and it turned out exactly the same), it's just that I have a really hard time finding quinoa flour in stores, and it's been a while since I made a Bulk Barn run to stock up on it.  SO, rest assured, you can make this recipe with or without the quinoa flour.

But you really should make it; it comes together quite quickly, and despite its humble appearance, you could serve it to anyone, and they would be suitably impressed by the flavour.  AND, there's no reason that you could just keep the caramel sauce separate and pour it over the served pieces of cake, but I like the all-in-one factor of this dish.  And you really don't notice the bits of dates in the finished product.

Last, make sure you buy pitted dates.  1 3/4 c of chopped dates doesn't seem like a whole lot until you have to pit each and every one of them.  Then it seems like waaaay too many dates.

caramel date cake with pecans
stolen and slightly modified from Quinoa 365
caramel-date cake with pecans

1 3/4 c chopped pitted dates
1 c boiling water
1 3/4 c all-purpose flour (OR 1 c AP flour, 3/4 c quinoa flour)
2 t baking powder
1 t baking soda
1/2 t salt
1/2 c butter, softened
1 c packed dark brown sugar
2 large eggs
1/2 t vanilla

3/4 c 18% cream
1 c packed dark brown sugar
1/3 c butter
1/2 c chopped pecans
fleur de sel/coarse salt

1. Preheat the oven to 350F.  Grease a 9-inch square baking pan.  Get all your ingredients ready.

caramel-date cake with pecans

2. In a medium bowl (I use a 2-cup liquid measure), combine the dates and boiling water and set aside so the dates absorb the water.  NOTE: Depending on how soft/fresh your dates are, they probably won't absorb all the water.  What I do, is pour off the excess water into a little pitcher.  If, upon mixing the dates into the cake, I feel the batter is really dry, I'll add some of this excess water.

3. In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder and baking soda.

4. Cream the butter in a large bowl (ideally with an electric mixer; handheld is perfect for this).  Add the brown sugar and cream until fluffy.  Add the eggs & vanilla and beat well.  Add the flour mixture and continue to mix until well-blended (a couple of minutes).

caramel-date cake with pecans

5. Fold in the (lightly strained) dates.  You can see I had about 4 oz of the liquid left, because my dates were really soft and fresh.

caramel-date cake with pecans

Your final batter consistency should be thick, but not dry (if it's pulling away from the sides of your bowl, like a muffin batter, then it's too dry; add some of the water).  It should be liquid, but definitely not thin or soupy.  This s what mine looked like, for reference.  Pour the batter into the pan.  Bake for 30 minutes.

caramel-date cake with pecans

6.  Meanwhile, combine the cream, sugar and butter in a medium saucepan over high heat and bring to a boil.  Reduce the heat to medium low and stir constantly (or not so constantly, lol), until the mixture is a thick caramel sauce; about 15-20 minutes.

7.  Remove the cake from the oven and pour the caramel sauce over top.  Sprinkle with chopped pecans and fleur de sel (just a bit!).

caramel-date cake with pecans

Bake for an additional five minutes.  Cut into 9 pieces and serve warm.  It's so sweet and caramelly and delicious.

And also kind of ugly.

caramel-date cake with pecans

Monday, October 01, 2012

everybody should meal plan

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meal planning

I remember my first exposure to meal planning.  I was 13, and had a pretty sweet after-school gig sitting for a couple of younger kids in my neighbourhood.  All I had to do was get off the bus with them, and we played games and read books until their parents got home an hour or so later.  Easy peasy.

On the fridge of this family, there was a laminated menu indicating what dinner would be had on what night.  It was the same every week (i.e., chicken tuesday, taco wednesday, etc.).

This seemed weird to me.  I couldn't imagine wanting to eat the same thing week after week after week. So I always thought THAT was what meal planning was.  That it wouldn't allow any spontaneity and that it meant one would be doomed to endless repetition of the same dreary old things.  Totally not my thing.

And now of course, we have all of these blogs and planning websites telling us we can cook once a month and then take a break from the kitchen.  I'll be honest, those sites kinda scare me, with their uber-organized alpha personalities cooking up 20 lbs of ground beef and chopping 50 lb of vegetables when they return from the grocery store, all to end up in an endless sea of labelled and vacuum-sealed ziploc (yes, I exaggerate).  That's not my thing either.

So with trial and error over the last few years, I've got *my* way of meal planning.  It's low-key, it's flexible, and it works, regardless of how simple or complex you want your meals to be.

First, I check the freezer to see if there's stuff I'd like to use up.  This week, I decided I wanted to use up osso buco, stewing beef, chicken, and some of my Supperworks order.  In my fridge, I had kale that needed to be used, along with leeks, and in the pantry I have squash and potatoes that I should get to.

So I came up with this:
Sunday - osso buco served with potato-leek puree and steamed broccoli
Monday - roasted garlic and pumpkin soup with kale caesar salad
Tuesday - chicken lettuce wraps
Wednesday - beef tagine with squash and couscous (I initially was thinking of Korean beef, but the flavour profile was too similar to the lettuce wraps!)
Thursday - vegetarian stuffed peppers from Supperworks
Friday - fend for yourself/leftovers

This is the plan.  I also write down WHERE the recipe is, so I can remember later.  I will probably switch at least one of these nights around, possibly not get to one of them, but at least I have a plan.  This makes it easy to, the night before, grab whatever I need from the freezer.  In fact, right now, I'm thinking I might make beef lettuce wraps instead of chicken, because I have already-ground beef, whereas I would have to grind the chicken myself....

I absolutely LOVE Pinterest for pinning stuff that looks intriguing.  I try to make sure that the text of my pin has some of the recipe keywords, and then I'll just go to my food board, and use the find function to browse through recipes containing my main ingredients (i.e., chicken, pasta, kale, etc.).  You should totally follow me on Pinterest.

Once I've got my recipes, I systematically write down the ingredients I need (and group by section of the grocery store --> produce, grocery, dairy, bakery), then I check the flyer of my local store to see what's on sale, and add things like fruits and veggies and staples to the list (for example, pineapple was 3/$5, so we got pineapple this week).

I also usually write down one baking-type recipe so I have muffins or something like them to put in Lil Z's school snack (whole wheat pumpkin spice latte muffins this week.  I also made these AMAZING lemon-coconut raw bites.  I'm scheming as to how I can make them nut-free so Z could take them to school....I'm thinking pepitas and shelled sunflower seeds...).

And voila.  It takes about 20-25 minutes over a nice cup of coffee and then I have a plan for the week.  And it's different every week; no boring, no repetition, no huge amounts of advance prep.  Don't get me wrong, I admire those who do all that prep, but I frankly don't have my schmidt together to do that when I get home from the store.  I also don't plan for lunches, because I eat leftover dinner from the night before for lunch.  Or, because I'm on mat leave, I'll just have something like a tuna sandwich, or eggs.  I keep it simple.

You could make it even simpler - there are meal planning companies like the Fresh 20 that will email you meal plans every week for a small fee.  I don't need this now, but I love the idea for when I go back to work.  I'm particularly intrigued by this company because it's only 20 ingredients, and it's all natural, whole foods.  If anyone has tried it, I'd love to hear your feedback.

Oh, and the cool meal-planning notepad?  You can find it here.  I love it!  Not necessary, but cute, and it makes me feel all organized.

Edited to add - you can also get the notepad at Chapters (I've seen it in-store as well).  For Canadian readers, this is probably way cheaper when you take shipping into account.

Anyway, that's how I do it.  And there's no reason you couldn't recycle plans; it's just not my style.  Hope you find it helpful!

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