Monday, May 31, 2010

That "Bang for Your Buck" Thing

It may not seem like it some times, but I'm a pretty frugal person. You might even be right to call me a bit of a miser sometimes. I shop the discount racks (at discount stores!) for clothing, wait for Christmas or my birthday to ask for a coveted item and cross my fingers that I get it, and will keep mending and re-mending the same thin fabric shopping bags instead of shelling out the 99 cents for a new one - unless they're running a promo at the store where they give you a free one. That pantry of mine? You know, the one with the gazillion flours? Stocked pretty much exclusively via sales at Bulk Barn. There's a reason why I fared so well on my co-op placement... when you have very little, you figure out how to
use what you DO have!

It's not as if I'm scraping-the-dirt poor or anything. I mean, yes, I'm a student, and I do have a small amount of debt, but I don't have credit cards out the ying-yang with balances up to my chin. I don't want a credit card, to be honest with you - I'm too afraid of what I'd do with it! I think I'm stuck in the "shock" mentality I recieved shortly after being given my first debit card as a 11-year-old. Within two weeks of it being in my hot little hands, my friends (in similar situations) and I let ourselves loose in the mall. Needless to say that barely $100 bank balance that seemed so big and unspendable on paper quickly became $10, which was glaringly communicated to me via a failed transaction. Embarassment ensued, and since then I have been in a sense paranoid about money ever since. Even on my last vacation, when I had a fairly high daily spending limit for souveniers, it was the 11th hour before my sister finally convinced me to spend the last $50.

I'm not cheap with my spending, however. There are a few things that I don't mind spending an extra buck or two on: When I shop for makeup (which is rare, since I hardly wear it), I spring for the organic, weird-chemical free skincare products (except lip balm, which I buy conventionally because the organic stuff has the evil coconut oil in it). In the kitchen, I prefer the taste and performance of Liberte organic yogurt and Philly cream cheese - nothing comes close. I also will shell out for high-quality "luxury" items like real, imported saffron and paprika from Spain and real vanilla extract. In a perfect world, of course, I'd have a bucketful of plump, fresh vanilla beans (or my own orchid) at my beck and call. But I don't, and I can't afford to stock even a bottle of Nielsen-Massey's superb vanilla in my cupboard as much as I adore cooking with it. But I do buy the real stuff. And while it may not be brand name (and anyways, lots of No Name stuff ROCKS), there is still a world of difference from the vanilla-scented water and chemical compounds you can buy for a buck.

In the spirit of embracing the flavour that is vanilla (and the featured Daily Special on FoodBuzz this Thursday), I wanted to make something that shouted vanilla. But not cake or cookies, since I was still catering to the slight post-vacation guilt that was hovering over the house's "eaters". Instead, I whipped up a quick batch of what I like to call "breakfast buns" - essentially a type of soda bread, slightly sweet, very vanilla and studded with poppy seeds, with just a touch of almond extract to play off the added nuttiness.

Vanilla-Almond Poppyseed Buns
Makes 10
1 1/3 cups buttermilk
1/4 cup melted butter
3 tbsp (yes, tablespoons!) pure vanilla extract
1 tsp almond extract
1/4 cup sugar
1 tsp salt
3 cups flour + extra for kneading
1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
1 tbsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tbsp poppy seeds
  1. Preheat oven to 400F, line a baking sheet with parchment or lightly grease.
  2. In a bowl, whisk together buttermilk, butter, vanilla, almond extract, sugar and salt together.
  3. Add flours, baking powder, baking soda and poppyseeds and beat with a wooden spoon for 5 minutes.
  4. Let rest 5 minutes, then divide into 10 balls and place on the sheets.
  5. Bake 30 minutes, then cool oh the sheets 5 minutes before moving to a rack to cool completely.
Amount Per Serving
Calories: 287.2
Total Fat: 6.3 g
Cholesterol: 13.5 mg
Sodium: 68.9 mg
Total Carbs: 49.6 g
Dietary Fiber: 3.3 g
Protein: 8.7 g
What do you do with vanilla? Do you shell out for the pure extract? Buy whole beans? Or do you not use it enough to make it worth the extra money (especially in the current climate)?

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Need Food? There's An App(le) For That

I've always found it rather funny that now, with the plethora of technological advances we've witnessed in the past 50 years, our society in general is more helpless than ever. Our microwaves no longer just have a "popcorn" feature - they now pick up sensory cues from the item inside, deciding on their own when your food is perfectly done, or they can scan the UPC code on the packet and make the executive decisions as to how long and what power level it will bombard the food with radiation for optimal performance. On iPhones, you can download "apps" for everything - from the convenient (if strictly unnecessary) to the absolutely inane. Do we really need to have "8,500+ Drink & Cocktail Recipes" at the touch of a button?  

I hope it will never come down to the day where we are incapable of even getting dressed and brushing our teeth without some device stepping in to do it for us. What would really happen to us then? I mean, just in my own experiences teaching others how to cook, or even when I mention baking my own bread, I'm met with stares of amazement and the question: "why would you want to?". Well, I know why I value knowing how to cook - even just the basics - because it shows that I can still do things for myself. I don't need to be told 47,000 ways to order a steak in Japan, or have my fridge put my menu together for me based on an internal inventory scan. My head is (for the moment at least) still screwed onto my shoulders and I still know how to look for the answers to my questions rather than demanding instant gratification from a composed block of plastic and metal. The whole becoming-reliant-on-technology thing is really starting to make me think of that Simpsons episode - and I personally don't want to wake up with a neighbourhood kid chewing off my arm because that was the nearest "good eats" in town (or maybe they'd be looking for a toothpick, I don't know!).

It doesn't have to be complicated or even all that showy when you're cooking for yourself and your family. I mean, unless you're expecting company that demands a massive armoured guard, an honestly put-together bowl of short ribs on rice, or a platter of sliced teacake and a hot pot of coffee, speak volumes more about your feelings for those you serve than the fanciest dinner out at a gazillion-star restaurant. As a better cook than I (and yes, I do love Ms. Ray) once said "anyone can pick up the phone and make a reservation". Even if you are cooking out of a box or jazzing up leftovers, you're showing drive, initiative and a willingness to put yourself out on the table (literally) for all to see.

I regularly take long and varied journeys in my kitchen, most often (and recently) in the quest to use up the odds and ends of things that lie in all the nooks and crannies of the pantry. When I had all those apples to contend with, I did the most expedient thing at the time by making some super-delicious, all-natural apple butter. Good stuff, for sure... but that was 22 pounds of apples - and there isn't enough bagels, baguettes or pork loins in Canada to use all of it up in a timely fashion. So I stuck some in the freezer, which worked for a while until our freezer got full. Hmm. Okay, then. Having already pawned off several jars of the stuff to others, the only other logical thing to do was bake with it.

It turns out that apple butter, if sufficiently thick and rich enough, makes a brilliant substitute for the mashed bananas in banana bread. Really, it makes sense - I mean, apple butter is basically mushed up whole apples - so I'm not surprised it worked. What I was surprised by was how well it worked - not only did my loyal fans (*ahem, thanks Mom and Marlene*) pronounce it delicious, the kids did too. And they picked a slice of Apple Butter Bread for snack over Starbucks donations - even when they couldn't instantly look up what exactly it was, or what the "bits" in it were comprised of (in this case, simple kasha filled that role)!

So for that home-cooked dinner tonight - do you have an App for that? Or do you have an appliance?

Super - Natural Apple Bread
Serves 12
1 cup flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
2 tbsp maca powder
3/4 cup sugar
1 tbsp cinnamon
4 oz silken tofu
1/3 cup cream cheese
1/2 cup oil
¾ cup apple butter
2 tbsp milk
1/4 cup kasha (toasted buckwheat kernels)

  1. Preheat oven to 350F, grease a loaf pan.
  2. In a bowl, whisk together flours, maca powder, sugar and cinnamon. Set aside.
  3. In a food processor, combine tofu, cream cheese, oil, apple butter and milk. Puree until smooth.
  4. Stir puree into the dry ingredients, then fold in the kasha until just combined.
  5. Bake for 1 hour, cool 30 minutes in the pan before unmoulding onto a rack.
Amount Per Serving
Calories: 281.3
Total Fat: 11.7 g
Cholesterol: 6.6 mg
Sodium: 29.5 mg
Total Carbs: 40.5 g
Dietary Fiber: 2.5 g
Protein: 4.8 g

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Sure, I'm Sure

I know I've said it before, but I wind up with the most random selection of technically edible products in my pantry. I specify "technically" edible, because - like the array of edible oil products out there - they won't necessarily kill you upon ingestion, but neither are they all that "real" or even tasty. However, because I'm cheap frugal to a fault, I can't bear to throw out potential ingredients in my pantry, regardless of how stomach-churning the thought of eating them alone might be.

A case in point was when I received a sampler pack of Ensure® in the mail, more than likely the result of one of my many doctor's good intentions. As healthful as is might be, the mixture of more things than I could ever hope to pronounce that fills those bottles just does not sit well with my system - literally. In fact, I remember being hospitalized and practically force-fed the stuff, regardless of the fact that ingredients like milk protein concentrate, canola oil, corn oil, and whey protein concentrate were present and were guaranteed to wreak havoc on my digestion. I'm not certain as to what the shakes tasted like, but the bad memories associated with drinking them is enough to steer me far away from anything even remotely similar.

Ironically, my mom was quite interested in the pack of shakes that arrived, stating that she was sure she wasn't getting near the proper balance of nutrients in her current diet given her high stress level and lack of lunchtime at work. I wanted to dissuade her from falling onto the "drink your calories" bandwagon, especially since I knew that with a little time I could find a way to pack a good amount of balanced, filling nutrition into an actual meal for her that would also satisfy her self-proclaimed sweet tooth. In addition to putting together some hearty, protein and whole-grain rich soups for her to eat for lunch, I continued to bake her loaves of bread - and it was in such a loaf that I finally found a use for some of that Ensure®. I didn't mention to my mom the swap I made in the recipe (adapted from King Arthur Flour), but as it rose and baked a very subtle vanilla-esque aroma emanated from the kitchen that lent just that little bit "extra" to the already awesome bread-baking feeling in the house.

This loaf is going off to Susan of WildYeast's blog event YeastSpotting this Friday! 

Nutritional Cinna-Swirl Raisin Bread
Serves 16
2 cups flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
1/4 cup buttermilk powder
1 1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tbsp cinnamon
1/4 cup sugar
2 1/2 tsp instant yeast
1 cup Ensure Nutritional Shake (vanilla)
2 eggs, beaten
1 tbsp melted butter
1/4 cup raisins
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 tbsp cinnamon
2 tsp cornstarch
1 egg, beaten
  1. In the bowl of a stand mixer, whisk together flours, buttermilk powder, salt, cinnamon, sugar and yeast.
  2. Add Ensure and eggs and mix with the dough hook for 5 minutes.
  3. Add butter and mix 5 minutes longer, then add raisins and mix just to incorporate (about 2 minutes).
  4. Cover bowl and allow to rest 30 minutes.
  5. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, combine brown sugar, cinnamon and cornstarch. Set aside.
  6. When dough has rested, roll out into a large rectangle (with the "short" ends the length of the loaf pan.
  7. Brush dough with beaten egg and evenly press the sugar/cinnamon mixture into it, leaving a 1" space  on one short end.
  8. Roll up dough, pinching the un-spiced end to seal filling.
  9. Place in a greased loaf pan.
  10. Cover and allow to rise 45 minutes - 1 hour, until almost doubled.
  11. Bake at 350°F for about 45 minutes, tenting the loaf lightly with aluminum foil for the final 15 minutes or so if it browns too quickly.
Amount Per Serving
Calories: 161.6
Total Fat: 2.5 g
Cholesterol: 43.7 mg
Sodium: 47.9 mg
Total Carbs: 31.1 g
Dietary Fiber: 1.5 g
Protein: 5.3 g

Monday, May 24, 2010

That Thing You Do!

I like to think of myself as being pretty easygoing in the kitchen (okay... you can stop guffawing now). I mean, I don't go out of my way to be a bitch about a few things "certain members" of the household do that irk me, but occasionally - especially when it gets into things that are actually causing damage - it drives me right up the wall. At first, it was my stepbrother plunking his espresso brewer right down on our laminate countertop, melting a lovely ring into it - neither I nor my mother were overly pleased with that, so he started to place a thin rag over the counter and keep doing it. I've actually gotten into a verbal warfare of sorts with my stepbrother and his father over keeping one side of our double sink clear, or at least reserved for clean dishes. Because they're not the type of people who would dare do the dishes (or even load/unload the dishwasher) the tins of sardines in oil they drained over a sink full of clean plates was of no consequence. I might have met that one go - except I was told that the stuff in the sink was my fault because it was there. Sigh. Whatever.

The pet peeve of mine that my mother and I did manage to cut down on significantly in the kitchen was the use of our metal utensils on all our non-stick pans. Of the four frying pans we technically own (all of which were bought as non-stick), only one of them is still non-stick - the rest of them have been scratched, burned and then (gasp) scoured with a steel wool pad to a lovely not-so-silky finish. In a way, though, we asked for it - my stepdad was desperate to prove his worthiness in the kitchen with his "signature" dish, essentially the Spanish classic patatas bravas (just don't tell him it's not Italian!), and so in her willingness to support his ego my mom opened the door up to the scratched pans and a very jacked-up olive oil bill! Once the benefits of using our non-stick safe utensils (similar to these from Chef's Catalog) made themselves clear the two of them have begun to significantly reduce the amount of oil in the pan, too - from easily a cup of the not cheap virgin stuff to a few tablespoons.

This recipe is one that is suitable for any meal - and the potato-pepper mixture is even good as leftovers topped with a freshly-fried egg. Another way to make this dish, which is also on the rotation around here, uses chunks of cod instead of the eggs simmered in the sauce. Paired with a crisp green salad it's a hearty and spicy one-pan dinner.

Sorry about the lack of photo for this one - being in the same room as several hot skillets with spitting oil is not tops on my to do list!

Patatas Bravas con Huevos
Serves 4
3 tbsp olive oil
5 small red potatoes, scrubbed and thinly sliced
2 large red peppers, chopped
1 piquillo or jalapeno pepper, diced
1 small onion, finely chopped
1/2 tbsp paprika
1 tbsp garlic powder
2 pinches crushed red pepper
Salt and pepper
1 1/2 cups crushed tomatoes
3 tbsp tomato paste
8 eggs

  1. In a large non-stick skillet over medium-high, heat olive oil.
  2. Add potatoes and peppers, cook 4 minutes without stirring.
  3. Stir in onion and cook 2 minutes longer.
  4. Sprinkle with paprika, garlic powder, red pepper flakes, salt and pepper and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute.
  5. Add tomatoes and tomato paste, bring to a bubble and cook until potatoes are tender - about 8-10 minutes - stirring occasionally.
  6. Crack eggs into the tomato mixture and cook until set.
Amount Per Serving
Calories: 474.3
Total Fat: 20.8 g
Cholesterol: 425.0 mg
Sodium: 617.8 mg
Total Carbs: 55.4 g
Dietary Fiber: 8.2 g
Protein: 19.9 g

The Amco 7-Piece Nonstick Nylon Utensil Set (pictured above) is the Daily Special on FoodBuzz this Wednesday.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

It's Not "Nothing"!

"What is that?"

I swear to you, if I had a quarter... wait, make that a nickel, for every time I've heard that question over the past few years regarding food, I would be a very wealthy girl. Most often I'm quite happy to indulge the asker's curiosity in whatever it is I happened to put together, as I figure knowledge is meant to be shared and shared alike. The only reason I discovered the ingredients, methods and histories of three quarters of the things I've tried is because something looked interesting at the grocery store, on a restaurant's plate or on a fellow foodie's blog and began to ask questions. As a result, in the past 5 years (since I first discovered what the heck blogs, and food blogging, were all about) I've tried and fallen in love with so many new things. Some things (like sunchokes) I had never heard of before reading the adventures of other cooks, and foods I never thought I'd go near with a 10-foot pole (eggplant or tofu, anyone?) are now some of my favourites. The learning process is a continuous one, since I'm a product of a fairly Western-traditional upbringing where my family still subscibes to the "meat, starch, salad" method of eating. Only since adopting a mostly vegan lifestyle have I been able to change the deep-seated beliefs and fears I had growing up and begin educating those that raised me.

It's not their fault of course - my parents actually are very adventurous eaters themselves. I count my grandfather and great uncle among two of the bravest culinary souls I know - neither of them so much as bats an eye when we go out to a hot-sauce store and try the array of habanero pain-inducing concoctions they have for sale. Heck, the two of them make not one, but three famous curries based on their various experiences living around the world - a 3 alarm, a 5 alarm and (their favourite) a 7 alarm. Yet I was on my own in Ottawa before really beginning to try new things and really expand my taste repertoire. My sister still has an unbelievably limited palate, which is a shame because she most definitely fits into the "supertaster" category of people and would make an amazing sommolier if she liked wine. Occasionally - though it rare it does happen - she expresses interest in a new food on the table, and I'm disheartened to usually hear my mother telling her "you won't like it" but "give it a try". Sure enough, a taste test will almost always result in her declaring "I don't like that" or "it's gross".

But is that story, like so many other tales out there, the result of just tastebud reception? Or is there a mental game at play too? I wonder sometimes just what the scope of the average kid's palate would be if they got to explore the farm and grocery markets of their neighbourhood with their parents. Instead of being served "what kids like to eat" at every turn by both their parents and family restaurants, is it too lofty to think that maybe the ideas of the "kids menu" and traditional "kids table" might just be retired?

It's been my experience as a child caregiver and older sister that there are some steps that make a difference in getting not only "new" and "unique" foods into kids but also commonplace fruit and vegetables too. None of these tricks, if you call them that, are rocket science, and I'm sure that if you're a parent you've heard them before. First, making kids as involved in the shopping and preparation of fresh foods as possible. Let them pick a new fruit or vegetable to try every week when you're at the grocery store, and have them help you make somethng with it. Take them to a farmers market a few times a summer, go strawberry or apple picking, plant a garden. Even if all you have is a balcony - you can have a tomato plant in a pot that is theirs, and they can see what goes into getting food to their plate. While it's not an instant "eureka" moment that registers hey, these are good for me, the fact remains that if they have at least a little say in what goes onto their plate they will at least try it.

Second, be a role model for your kids when it comes to eating. You're out at the market and James chose kohlrabi as his vegetable for the week (kids love this one because of it's Sputnik-like appearance), but you've been closer to kissing Bigfoot than making anything with it? The powers of Google and the Food Blog Search tool can be your greatest aids. And maybe the puree you made with it looks "odd" to you... well you know what? Give it a taste, let your kids see you trying it, and they just might follow suit. At the very least, try implementing a "one-bite rule" - everyone at the table must try at least one good forkful of everything. If, after that, they're not into it, a suitable once-in-a-while substitute for a meal is an 8-oz glass of milk (full-fat for those under two, 1%-2% for those older). A whole food in itself, milk will give them quality amounts of elements like calcium, phosphorus, riboflavin, protein and vitamins A & D, and if you add fruit, plain yogurt and a touch of honey, a wholesome smoothie can be at your fingertips. A snack of something like cheese and crackers or hummus and veggie sticks before bed will help keep the rumbling tummies quiet. For other ideas, sites like Mamapedia are a great resource.

Here is where sitting down as a family at the dinner table and eating together as much as you can makes a huge difference - you can talk about the new food you're trying, and come up with something else to look for the next week at the supermarket. This, too, is a great opportunity to reinforce the importance of local and seasonal foods to your children. Sure, the dragonfruit and gigantic strawberries in the middle of winter may look cool, but reminding your kids that the produce that hasn't traveled a thousand miles tastes a lot better will go further to getting it into them. I've used this analogy: "you know how tired and stiff [the child] feels after they've driven up to (the cottage, the boat, Grandmas...)? Well, fruits and veggies feel the same way".

I guess what it comes down to is being able to recapture and share in the wonders of the world children see. To them, everything is shiny and new - the worldly realities of things like bills and traffic haven't taken their toll yet. Find something that's just as new and different to you, or look at something "ordinary" through the rainbow lenses of youth. To them, nothing is "nothing".

Here's my latest foray into the varied world of cooking - a gluten free, vegan banana bread that makes use of a ton of the flours I've stashed away in the pantry and no gums or stabilizers. The original came courtesy of blogger Linsey from Cake and Commerce, a gluten-free, whole-food-approach blog with tons of awesome ideas.

GF Vegan Chocolate Chip Banana Bread
24 Slices, 2 Loaves
1/2 cup teff flour
1/2 cup sorghum flour
1 cup buckwheat flour
1/4 cup tapioca flour
1/4 cup sweet rice flour
2 tbsp cornstarch
2/3 cup sugar
1/2 tbsp baking powder
1 1/4 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1/2 tbsp Chinese 5-spice
1/2 cup shortening
1/4 cup canola oil
6 bananas, mashed
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 tbsp dark agave nectar (or honey)
1/4 cup orange juice
1/3 cup low-fat soy milk mixed with 1 tbsp lemon juice (or rice milk or dairy buttermilk)
5 oz silken tofu, pureed (or 2 eggs, or other replacer equivalent)
1 tbsp vanilla
1 cup miniature chocolate chips (make sure they're GF)
  1. Preheat oven to 350 F, grease 2 loaf pans or line with parchment
  2. Combine flours, cornstarch, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and 5-spice in a bowl.
  3. Cut in the shortening until the mixture has the consistency of coarse meal (like with pie dough).
  4. In another bowl, beat together oil, bananas, brown sugar, agave, orange juice, soy milk, tofu puree and vanilla.
  5. Add to the crumbly mixture and combine well (you don't have to worry about overmixing here, get out the lumps).
  6. Fold in the chocolate chips.
  7. Bake 50 minutes - 1 hour, until a toothpick inserted in the loaf comes out clean.
  8. Cool 10 minutes in the pan before turning out onto a rack and cooling completely.
Amount Per Serving
Calories: 220.9
Total Fat: 9.2 g
Cholesterol: 0.0 mg
Sodium: 6.4 mg
Total Carbs: 36.4 g
Dietary Fiber: 2.6 g
Protein: 2.4 g

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Real Food... Really.

Ever wonder how much food do we eat these days?

I mean real food. Fresh-from-the-farm (via markets or grocery stores), raw ingredients, homemade meals and treats, macaroni and cheese that doesn't involve either a vibrant orange, chalky powder or some form of "processed cheese food"? Food your mom grew up with, maybe food you grew up with, made with love and eaten as a family?

I get it - I'm just as guilty as any of us (and considering the general readership of food blogs being what they are, I'm preaching to the choir here). Yes, I use canned tomatoes and beans to make things fast sometimes. Yes, I eat ketchup and 1-minute oatmeal and I don't grind my own peanut butter or shred my own coconut. Though I have made pasta dough and stocks from scratch, more often than not you'll find dried noodles and tetra-paks of chicken broth in my cupboard. But that doesn't mean that I don't care about what I'm putting into my body or the systems of all those I care for. I may use canned tomatoes and dry pasta sheets to make lasagne for Sunday dinner, but you can bet I'll be flavouring up those tomatoes with fresh garlic, herbs and spices, layering it over the noodles and the filling of browned meat and whatever seasonal vegetables look tasty when I shop. Of course the half hour it takes to put together the pan is longer than unwrapping a frozen "homestyle lasagne" and sticking it in the oven... I'm not a machine with vats of pre-chopped, cooked, shredded and moulded ingredients! But at the same time, my family can sense that the resuled was cooked, not just re-warmed, even days later when they're eating leftovers.

I'm not a martyr - I know nobody will have the time every night to put together a 3 course meal from ground zero. We all have lives, jobs, commitments and deadlines that don't allow for unbridled hours in the kitchen. But making the choice to make real food and cooking a part of your daily routine will go a long way in re-shaping the future generations we're raising. Even if it's just in the form of using in-season vegetables and fruit for snacks, or having your kids stir a pot of pasta or make muffins with you on a weekend begins to bring back those basic elements of home life that began to die off when the microwave was invented.

I'm not alone in this belief system, either. Foodies and families from both sides of the cash register, including some of the "big guns" like Hellmann's, are beginning to take a more prominent stance in the re-acceptance of meals and ingredients made with natural, simple ingredients. While I know there are those out there who can subscibe to a 100-mile diet or organic everything in their homes (and sometimes out), I know that for me at least adopting a lifestyle focusing on fresh and seasonal produce, but not relying on an "organics" tag to make buying decisions works. I would much rather use a good-quality, no-salt-added can of tomatoes in the middle of the winter than peeling, chopping, seeding and cooking flavourless red blobs, and I'll definitely eat my fill of pencil-thin asparagus from the time I see the "Foodland Ontario" bands on them in April. As for the whole organics thing, well... they can't win 'em all. I wouldn't be able to afford to sit here typing at my computer if I bought everything certified organic. But you know what? A lot of farmers out there can't afford to certify their business as organic and keep the label every year. So when I do go out to the farmers markets around me over the summer, I ask about the produce I'm picking up, especially if it's something I wouldn't peel first. A simple "what's your preferred pest management system?" will help you choose what you're going to spend your money on, and while you're at it decide if it's worth paying $4 for a head of organic lettuce from another country when you can buy a fresh-from-the-farmer, non-certified bundle of greens for $2.

Processed foods, especially convenience food ingredients, can be trickier. For instance, this is what you get if you open up a can of Lucky Leaf brand peach filling for your next BBQ dessert:
Peach Slices, Water, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Corn Syrup, Food Starch-Modified (Corn), Sugar, Salt and Citric Acid, Ascorbic Acid to Maintain Color. Color Added.

That's ten ingredients... including the big bad-boy HFCS, and three kinds of refined sugar. And food colouring? Since when was a perfect peach not vibrantly hued on it's own? That would be why there's a shade called "peach" out there! Not to mention that aside from being gooey-sweet, the filling has no added "oomph" from any other spice. I mean really - for the 18 grams of sugar and 90 calories in every 1/3 cup portion? I'd rather make my own with ingredients you don't have to source from a company with a name like CHEMaster.

Not all of premade products are evil though, the trick is to read the labels - if you can't pronounce what you're reading... if your grandmother would believe an ingredient was a bathroom cleaner before believing it should be eaten, it's safe to say it's probably not the most wholesome choice. Times are changing too - Hellmann's Mayonnaise's latest campaign not only is promoting it's removal of Xantham Gum, Phosporic Acid and Beta Carotene from it's formula, but had introduced a whole "Real Food Grant" program. This awards program is giving away $100 000 Canadian in funding to deserving advocates of tying family and food together who want to bring their plans to bear in their community. Whether the ideas are huge or tiny in scale, if they involve bringing the awareness of true nutrition to the younger generation as a whole and involving them in keeping it alive, they're good! If you're interested, the PDF file of information is here and the official grant homepage is here.

In terms of pie-making, peach pies don't have to stay a strictly summer treat just because they're homemade! If, like me, you happen to live in an area that has both an insanely short and an insanely rich peach season, why not pick up a few extra baskets at the market when they're at their peak (and cheapest)? I've had great success with making pie and crisps with the bags of frozen filling I made last summer, including one last month for the Club staffers. As a bonus, my filling only has 5 ingredients, including Chinese 5-Spice (totally optional), six grams of sugar and 56 calories for the same amount as the pre-canned stuff. So you have to get sticky one time a year for a half hour of peach peeling? Come on! You can lick your fingers... try enjoying that while putting the can into your cart!

Easy-Freeze Peach Pie Filling
The tapioca flour here is key to the consistency in the finished pie, since it isn't affected the same way as cornstarch and flour by freezing. Makes enough for one 10" deep dish pie, or one regular 9" pie and a small peach crisp!
4 lbs ripe, fresh peaches, peeled
3/4 cup raw cane sugar
1/4 cup tapioca flour (not pearls or granules)
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp Chinese 5-Spice powder (optional, use your favourite spice)

  1. Slice peaches into thin wedges, trying to preserve as much of the shape and juice as possible. Place into a large bowl.
  2. In a small bowl, combine sugar, tapioca starch, salt and 5-spice.
  3. Pour over the peaches and toss to coat.
  4. Use immediately

For later pie:
  1. Line a pie plate with greased foil. Spoon filling into the foil to the rim of the pie plate.
  2. Cover with another layer of greased foil and place in the freezer.
  3. When frozen, remove the foil bundle and store in a heavy-duty freezer bag.
  4. To use, unwrap (still-frozen) filling and place into prepared pie shell. Top with crust and bake immediately at 375F for 55 minutes.

For cobbler or crisp filling:
  1. Place amount required by the recipe in heavy-duty freezer bags, gently pressing to form a single layer of fruit. Place bags on cookie sheets and freeze solid, then store as desired.
Amount Per Serving
Calories: 55.7
Total Fat: 0.1 g
Cholesterol: 0.0 mg
Sodium: 48.4 mg
Total Carbs: 14.4 g
Dietary Fiber: 1.3 g
Protein: 0.5 g

You can make anything you want with the filling too, just like with the regular stuff - thawed out, they're delicious spooned over ice cream for an instant summer dessert or made into a simple, fast crisp with an oatmeal topping. To keep with the theme of Marye's blog event Real Food... Real Quick (amen to you for starting that!), I'd pop the crisp into the oven before sitting down to a dinner of grilled vegetable sandwiches.

The sandwiches are pretty dead-simple (and quick!) to put together - but their whole taste relies on the freshness of the ingredients you choose. In the height of summer, sliced zucchini, bell peppers and eggplant topped with fresh, juicy tomatoes are a sure winner, come slightly cooler days of early fall rich onion and earthy mushrooms fit the bill nicely. The tangy, herb and garlic yogurt sauce is reminiscent of Greek tzatsiki, and is delicious both on the sandwiches as well as alongside any grilled meats.

Grilled Summer Vegetable Sandwiches
Serves 4
1/4 cup non-fat Greek style yogurt (like Oikos)
1 clove garlic, crushed through a press
1/2 tsp oregano
1/2 tsp dill
1/4 tsp paprika
1 medium eggplant, peeled and sliced lengthwise
1 medium zucchini, sliced lengthwise
2 red bell peppers, sliced into thick strips
2 tbsp olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
4 multi-grain sandwich rolls, split
1 beefsteak tomato, sliced
  1. Preheat the grill to high heat and spray with cooking spray.
  2. In a small bowl, whisk together yogurt, garlic, oregano, dill and paprika (make ahead: up to 1 day ahead - store covered in the fridge).
  3. Drizzle eggplant, zucchini, and peppers with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
  4. Place on the grill and cook 3 minutes per side.
  5. In the last 2-3 minutes of cooking, place buns, cut side down, on the grill to toast.
  6. Serve grilled vegetables on the toasted buns topped with a few slices of tomato and the yogurt mixture.

Amount Per Serving
Calories: 236.5
Total Fat: 9.8 g
Cholesterol: 0.0 mg
Sodium: 210.9 mg
Total Carbs: 32.9 g
Dietary Fiber: 6.2 g
Protein: 7.6 g

So, how do you embrace real food? Drop me a comment and let me know!

Friday, May 21, 2010

A Hobnob With a Hobgob(lin)

I love opening my kitchen to anyone who happens to drop by. Friends, family, friends of friends, kids and pets are all equally welcome in my kingdom of sorts, provided that (most) of the damage incurred is to food and not the furniture! I can even take a decent amount of "damage" to my nerves - after the Boys and Girls Club, I'm pretty sure they're cloaked in neual Scotchgard™! I've even been known to invite some pretty shady characters - some cake-loving devils for instance - and some sweet angels too. But I'd never had a hobgoblin in my fridge, until now.

Mind you, the hobgoblin fit quite comfortably inside there, being a bottle of beer and all. When it came time for me to make my contribution to the Simcoe chapter of the Autism Society of Ontario's Fifth Annual Evening for Autism, I was casting my mind around for ideas as to what to do that was new and unique this time around. There was a request on the books for a similar cake to last year's, so I knew that that would be made, but it wasn't until I saw my dad wearing a shirt from Wychwood Brewery with the imp on it's front that I wondered how it would fare in cake. Ironically, I had bought him that shirt with a bottle of the same beer for Christmas a few years back, for no other reason really than because the logo was neat and hey, the beer came with a shirt! Yeah, that was a real sentimental gift, I tell ya! ;-)

So anyways, I started to search for what the beer actually was supposed to taste like - I know it sounds odd, I mean why not just go crack a bottle and try it myself, right? Well, that nasty little alcohol allergy thing eighty-sixed that kind of plan, but luckily there seem to be some well-worded beer connoisseurs out there that helped clue me in.

Apparently, the brew has coffee, spice almond aromas and a flavour of malt, chocolate, coffee and smoke. Some people claim a caramel or even a toasted bread type of nuance in the bottle. I don't know about you, but these all sound like pretty tasty elements, not the least in a cake! Even the note about "smoke aroma" isn't too far out of left field, really - think of sweet maple or apple wood, or slightly charred marshmallows over a camp fire. Plus, I've used not only smoked salt but liquid smoke in cookies before - remember?

So a new brew for the cake... nice, but I still wanted something really different. Something I'd never used before. Well, to start, I figured I would beef up the chocolate flavour a bit more with a half cup of super-strong espresso. A dig through my pantry cache gave me a few unexpected bonus flavours too - deep, bittersweet Demerara sugar and a bag of previously forgotten malted barley flour! But what to do with the now superfluous 1/2 cup of beer left in the bottle? Well, I would like to say that it was a stroke of genious that brought me to my final plan... but in reality it was really more of a stroke of luck - the Food Network's Ultimate Recipe Showdown: Cookies show was on, and when I was looking up the recipe for one of the other contestant's cookies, the "White Beer Cookies" by Sean LaFond caught my eye. The directions called for reducing the beer with sweetener to make a syrupy drizzle that wouldn't throw off the dry/wet ratio of the mixture, which would then have the intensified flavour of the ale.

That's when the lightbulb went on for me. I could just combine the leftover hobgoblin with a touch of brown sugar and cook it into a thin beery caramel, then add it to the standard cream cheese filling and masking frosting! It would give that added *punch* to the basic recipe! But it involved a form of one of my greatest fears in the kitchen: hot sugar. For me, hot, sticky mixtures are right up there with boiling oil on the "stay away, far away" list. My track record with it's not stellar - I have a few burn marks on both my skin and some oven mitts to prove that. But hey, I was more experienced in the kitchen now, and if it didn't work out this time for whatever reason I could just junk the mixture and nobody would know!

It did work out though - about 20 minutes simmering on the stove brought about a rich, dark syrup that thickened nicely as it cooled down. It wasn't quite liquid candy-thick, more like pancake syrup, but it had reduced way down and would more than serve it's purpose in flavouring the relatively bland filling.

The rest of the cake-making was pretty standard issue, aside from the new flour and sugar I used and the hit of espresso I threw in! The method stayed the same though, because why mess with a good thing? I've done this cake four times in two and a half years - I know it works. The ganache on top of the whole shebang stayed the same too, because it's pretty hard to change up a mixture of two ingredients that is supposed to be simple. A generous sprinkle of decorator's sugar formed a lush grassy field on the dark chocolate, which I then dotted with candy-covered chocolate pebbles, eventually using them to make a nest for a few malt-chocolate Easter eggs.

So how did it all go over? I wasn't able to attend the evening myself, but I heard back from the organizer that weekend, who extended her thanks for the cake and telling me it's final selling price at the auction - $200! Considering that last year's cake fetched a respectable $120, I was flabberghasted at the increase. I'm thinking that hobgoblin just might have been an angel in disguise!

Hobgoblin's Chocolate Cake
Serves 20
1 1/2 cups Hobgoblin Ale (or similar malty stout beer)
1/2 cup brewed espresso
1 1/2 cups salted butter
1 cup Demerara sugar
1 1/2 cups dark cocoa powder
2 cups flour
1 cup cake flour
1 cup malted barley flour
2 cups sugar
1 tbsp baking soda
1 1/2 tsp salt
4 eggs
1 1/3 cups full fat sour cream

1/2 cup Hobgoblin Ale
1 tsp Demerara sugar
2 (8 ounce) packages cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup shortening
1/4 cup butter, softened
1 tsp vanilla
4 cups sifted icing sugar  
Poured ganache for finishing
  1. Preheat oven to 350°F, grease and line two 9" spring-form pans.
  2. In a large saucepan, combine stout and coffee with the butter and bring to a simmer.
  3. Stir in brown sugar until blended, simmer 5 minutes.
  4. Add cocoa powder, whisking well until the mixture is smooth.
  5. Remove from heat and cool 10 minutes.
  6. In a medium bowl, whisk together flours, sugar, baking soda, and salt.
  7. In another large bowl, beat eggs and sour cream together well.
  8. Beat in the slightly cooled beer mixture.
  9. Fold flour mixture into the batter until everything is completely combined.
  10. Bake cakes about 50 minutes, or until a tester inserted into center of cakes comes out clean.
  11. Cool completely in tins before turning out, filling and frosting.
  1. In a small pot, cook stout and brown sugar over low heat until reduced to 2 tbsp. Chill completely.
  2. Cream together the cream cheese, shortening and butter in a large bowl until creamy.
  3. Beat in the reduced stout and vanilla, then gradually add icing sugar to your desired consistency.
  4. Chill 2 hours before use, store unused portions in the refrigerator or freeze.
  1. Slice each cake layer in half horizontally, to form 4 layers. Place one layer on a cake round.
  2. Spread with a generous dollop of filling, top with another layer of cake.
  3. Repeat until the cake is stacked. Chill until stable, about 1 hour.
  4. Coat the cake in a thin layer of the remaining filling/frosting to seal in the crumbs and even the sides, chill until firm.
  5. Make the ganache, allowing it to stand 10-15 minutes to thicken slightly, then pour over the cake (placed over a wire rack to let excess run through) in 2 or 3 coats, waiting 5 minutes in between each coat.
  6. Decorate as you wish!
Amount Per Serving
Calories: 654.9
Total Fat: 34.5 g
Cholesterol: 117.0 mg
Sodium: 212.4 mg
Total Carbs: 86.0 g
Dietary Fiber: 3.2 g
Protein: 8.3 g

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Dining (Without Dying) – Disney Gets it Right

I had the good fortune recently of spending a week vacationing at Walt Disney World resort in Orlando, Florida. Having been there several times over the years since our first family trip there in 1996, I knew I was headed straight for a land of (admittedly) long lines, but also tons of sun, fun, great photo-taking and people watching opportunities. As a foodie, too, Disney World promised a land of all sorts of gastronomic delights. With four theme parks, including the international smorgasbord that is EPCOT’s World Showcase, plus two water parks and a “downtown” shopping and dining district that rivals most cities’, it is truly a land of sensory overload. I have eaten my way through Disney enough times to know the best spots to find everything from breakfasts to desserts, whether it’s a to-die-for chicken Caesar wrap on the fly or an elegant, sit-down three-course dinner. I can pretty much work the World’s food scene with my eyes closed.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Travels in Taste

One of the (many) regions of the world I 've always been enthralled with, and hope to visit one day, is Morocco. From all the tourism and encyclopedia articles I've read and photos I've gawked at, the thought of a land so rich in history, culture, religion and colour begs me to visit. I can't imagine a better afternoon than arriving in Marrakesh and trawling the Bab Doukkala food market, with the opportunity to find anything from perfectly dried fruits, to jars of saffron, or tubs of giant, briny olives. The aromas of this north African land's traditionally known dishes are their own wonders to behold, as are the vibrant shapes and colours of their textiles and ingredients and the distinctive music.

Soup has a certain, inexplicable way of warming the body and soul of anyone who encounters it. It could be any kind, from any region of the world, and the feeling that I can't describe as anything but "comfortable" would be the same. Making soup from scratch (or mostly scratch), whenever you can also a great way to explore the world without leaving your home. For me, it allows my mind to instantly board a plane to anywhere I want to go, wherever piques my interest or holds a special place in my heart, and visit - even just for the afternoon.

My mom shares my love for the unique country (though maybe not as feverishly), especially the colourful clothes and savoury flavours. As a result, the two of us have made the culinary trip a few times - from the ratatouille-like kamfounata, to a spicy and thick stew and even a simple but elegant jewelled couscous pilaf. With our trip coming up along with the promise of a visit to the "Disney Morocco" in EPCOT, I couldn't get the country off my mind! I wanted to capture, as best I could, my favourite nuances of the country - while concocting a delicious and portable meal for my mother's lunchbox.

Moroccan Inspired Vegetable Soup
Serves 10 as lunch
1 tbsp olive oil
1/2 large onion, diced
5 medium carrots, chopped
1 large red pepper, chopped
1 stalk celery, diced
1 clove garlic, grated
1 tsp grated fresh ginger
1/2 tbsp orange zest
6 cups vegetable broth
1/3 cup orange juice
1 19 oz. can diced tomatoes
2 tbsp tomato paste
1 tsp curry powder
1 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp saffron threads, crushed
1/2 tsp black pepper
1 19 oz. can chickpeas, drained
1 cup Golden Jewel grains blend (I found this at Bulk Barn - it's a mixture of Israeli couscous, coloured orzo, split garbanzo beans and quinoa - feel free to substitute your favourite mix)
5 oz green beans, chopped
Salt, to taste
  1. Heat olive oil in a large stockpot over medium-high flame.
  2. Add onion, carrots, pepper and celery. Cook 7-8 minutes.
  3. Stir in garlic, ginger and prange zest, cook until fragrant, about 1 minute.
  4. Stir in broth, orange juice, tomatoes, tomato paste, curry, cumin, saffron, and pepper.
  5. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer 30 minutes.
  6. Stir in chickpeas, grain blend and green beans, cover and simmer 15 minutes, until beans are tender.
Amount Per Serving
Calories: 198.4
Total Fat: 2.6 g
Cholesterol: 0.0 mg
Sodium: 872.9 mg
Total Carbs: 37.1 g
Dietary Fiber: 5.8 g
Protein: 6.6 g

The couscous and orzo in my grain blend add two unique pasta shapes, perfect to send into Presto Pasta Nights! It's being hosted this week by Susan who writes The Well-Seasoned Cook.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

When In Doubt, Make Muffins

One of the best things about muffins is that they are pretty much infinite in their possibilities. Add salt, cheese, bacon and onions or herbs and you've got yourself a dinner side, drizzle in maple syrup and nuts for breakfast, or go all-out with chocolate chips and candied fruit for a dessert. Because they're lightning-fast to pull together, too, they're a great vehicle for what I like to call the "use-up" phenomenon. There's nothing better to slake a sweets craving mid-morning than a slightly sweet, dense batter crammed to the brim with spices and fruit!

While at the Club, I made gads of different muffins to stem the tide of all the assorted produce we had from turning all at once. While all of them were eaten one way or another over the weeks, there were a handful of each kind that became favourites with the staff, and forced me to figure out the actual recipes I was making rather than simply tossing ingredients into a bowl and stirring. A couple of trial-and-error episodes later and I hit it on the head (again) with these three apple-packed snacks that went a long way to emptying the giant box!

Eggless Apple - Coconut Muffins
Makes 18
¼ cup sugar
¼ cup packed brown sugar
3 tbsp canola oil
1 tbsp vanilla extract
2 cups soy milk
1 cup flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
¾ cup graham cracker crumbs
1 tbsp baking powder
1 tbsp cinnamon
1 tsp nutmeg
½ tsp salt
½ cup shredded unsweetened coconut
2 peeled apples, finely diced
1 peeled apple, sliced into 18 wedges
  1. Preheat the oven to 400°F, line 18 muffin cups with paper liners.
  2. In a large bowl, mix sugar, brown sugar, oil, vanilla and milk until well blended.
  3. Add both flours, graham cracker crumbs, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt.
  4. Stir until just combined, then fold in the coconut and the diced apples.
  5. Spoon evenly into muffin tin. Top each cup of batter with 1 apple wedge.
  6. Bake 20 minutes, then turn out onto a rack to cool.
Amount Per Serving
Calories: 138.1
Total Fat: 4.3 g
Cholesterol: 0.0 mg
Sodium: 38.3 mg
Total Carbs: 25.1 g
Dietary Fiber: 2.3 g
Protein: 3.4 g

Super Apple Raisin Muffins
Makes 18
5 large apples, peeled & chopped finely
3/4 cup sugar
1 tbsp honey
1 1/4 cups raisins (soaked in boiling water and drained)
1/4 cup oil
1 tbsp vanilla
1 egg
1 cup flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1 tbsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp allspice
  1. Preheat oven to 350 F, grease 18 muffin cups.
  2. Mix apples, sugar, honey, and raisins in a bowl, let stand 30 minutes.
  3. Add oil, vanilla and egg, stirring well.
  4. Add flours, baking soda, baking powder and spices to the apple mixture, stir just enough to moisten dry ingredients.
  5. Bake 20-25 minutes.
Amount Per Serving
Calories: 183.8
Total Fat: 3.8 g
Cholesterol: 11.8 mg
Sodium: 5.4 mg
Total Carbs: 37.5 g
Dietary Fiber: 3.0 g
Protein: 2.5 g

Wholesome Creamy Apple Muffins
Makes 18
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
¼ tsp salt
1 tbsp pie spice
½ cup cream cheese
½ cup sugar
1 tbsp honey
2 oz silken tofu, pureed
1 cup sour cream
2 large apples, peeled and diced
1/3 cup raisins, soaked in hot water and drained
½ cup toasted buckwheat kernels (kasha)
  1. Preheat the oven to 450°F, grease 18 muffin cups and set aside.
  2. Mix together the flours, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and spice, set aside.
  3. In a separate bowl, cream the cream cheese, sugar and honey.
  4. Add the tofu, beating well, then add the sour cream and blend thoroughly. Stir in the dry ingredients, then fold in the apple chunks, raisins and kasha.
  5. Bake for 10 minutes, turn the heat down to 400°F and bake for an additional 5 to 10 minutes.
  6. Cool the muffins for 5 minutes in the tin, then turn them out onto a wire rack to cool completely.
Amount Per Serving
Calories: 166.0
Total Fat: 5.4 g
Cholesterol: 12.7 mg
Sodium: 29.5 mg
Total Carbs: 27.1 g
Dietary Fiber: 2.1 g
Protein: 3.6 g