Tag Archives: Cooking

Time for the O Canada! Challenge

WalMart and social conservatism have still managed to creep across the border, despite Canada's best efforts at mounting a strong defense.

When you live in the United States, it is hard to realize that Canada is actually a different country. In fact, we Americans tend to see ourselves as the center of the universe,  forgetting that Canada is a completely separate society, and I don’t just mean because they have universal health care and affordable college tuition (that’s just crazy — what were they thinking?). My husband grew up in Detroit, just across the river from Windsor, Canada. From the Detroit side, Windsor looks pretty much like any slightly-worse-for-the-wear midwestern city, but, once you’re there, you begin to feel the subtle differences.

For me, it began with homemade ketchup. Yup, I said homemade ketchup. I mean, who makes that? Nobody. We stopped for lunch several years ago in Windsor before taking a drive through the Ontario countryside. The restaurant was close to the Ambassador Bridge and the oversized casinos, in a renovated warehouse. The place looked upscale but was really inexpensive, and, yes, when I dipped my french fries (or are those Canadian fries?) into the ketchup, it was deliciously and undeniably homemade. I will tell you now that there is nothing like homemade ketchup, and once you have made it yourself, you will never be able to really enjoy Heinz again.

I find the Winter Olympics in Vancouver to be a great inspiration for my cooking. For the opening ceremonies last week, I tried really hard to come up with something Vancouverian for dinner, but I drew a blank. Finally, I just decided to go with Canadian-themed food and ended up making Canadian cheddar cheese scones, split open and topped with fried Canadian bacon (a meatless one for us, of course) and a poached egg and then smothered with a Canadian cheese and broccoli sauce. Perfect for a cold winter night, and even better when followed by maple syrup ice cream sundaes.

Much to my husband’s chagrin, I am not doing Canadian-themed meals for each night of the Olympics, but I will do a few here and there. Today, however, I was looking morosely at the two feet of snow stubbornly covering my front and back gardens and began dreaming of spring. Distant memories of warm air and soft breezes reminded me of picnicking on a grassy hillside, the clover tickling my bare toes and fat flies hovering hopefully near the leftovers.

A perfect view for a picnic, along the Canadian shore of Lake Erie.

So, tomorrow night, we’re having a picnic. I decided to check around on the internet and see if I could find any Canadian picnic recipes, and I actually came across quite a few, in celebration of Canada Day, which is on July 1st. It may be February, but tomorrow I will be stretching a blanket on the carpet in front of the television set so that we can watch the ice dancing, women’s skeleton, and men’s super-G while munching on the Canadian pressed picnic sandwich — and maybe even a few deviled eggs, because I am, after all, American.

Go Canada! Here’s a link to a few recipes that might give you a little inspiration when you need it most — and let me know what you make!

http://www.razzledazzlerecipes.com/canada/index.htm

If you aren’t in a Canadian frame of mind, you might try making your own ketchup. I enjoy making it for my niece’s boyfriend, who insists on putting ketchup on everything — and I am actually not kidding about that. This particular recipe comes from epicurious.com; there are many others out there, although most recipes are pretty much the same. Personally, I also like to add just a bit of tabasco sauce to this — not enough to make it spicy, but just enough to give it just the teeniest kick as you swallow those fries.

Homemade Ketchup

  • 1 (28-oz) can whole tomatoes in purée
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 2/3 cup packed dark brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup cider vinegar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

Purée tomatoes (with purée from can) in a blender until smooth.

Cook onion in oil in a 4-quart heavy saucepan over moderate heat, stirring, until softened, about 8 minutes. Add puréed tomatoes, tomato paste, brown sugar, vinegar, and salt and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until very thick, about 1 hour (stir more frequently toward end of cooking to prevent scorching).

Purée ketchup in 2 batches in blender until smooth (use caution when blending hot liquids). Chill, covered, at least 2 hours (for flavors to develop).

Update: February 20th

We had a lovely indoor picnic last night — I would highly recommend it as a great way to chase away those I-can’t-take-another-minute-of-winter blues! Here are a few pics:

Here's the Canadian Pressed Picnic Sandwich as I began to slice it. Very beautiful to look at, quite messy to eat. Rick finally resorted to a knife and fork, but I figured out the proper technique and managed to eat it without a bib! Our sandwich was made with a series of cold cuts, smoked provolone, roasted red peppers, olive salad, romaine lettuce, and horseradish sauce.

Rick settles in on the picnic blanket to watch the Friday night competitions in Vancouver.

Our picnic smorgasbord: vegetarian buffalo "wings" with homemade blue cheese dressing, lemon zest deviled eggs, the Canadian Pressed Picnic Sandwich, cole slaw, potato salad, and sparkling lemonade. We had blueberry tarts for dessert, with cinnamon whipped cream. Good thing we aren't actually competing!

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Picky, picky

Wild rice and brown rice, side by side in perfect harmony. Keep reading, this will all make sense in a few minutes.

Like most moms, I have had experience with picky eaters. Luckily, the problem has never been with my own kid, but she has friends who are, and they always appear surprised that I don’t know that they “don’t like” this or that. Kids are funny that way — they are so self-absorbed (and I mean that in a truly loving way) that they don’t realize that their personal likes and dislikes are not universally known. However, as I often say, I don’t cater to picky eaters, something which I learned from my mom. I’m a good cook, I make tasty food, and it won’t kill you to try what’s been set out before you. End of story.

Thinking about picky eaters reminds me of my father-in-law. Wally is absolutely not a picky eater, and, as a cook, it is actually a joy for me to see how he enjoys the meals that I prepare, especially because I know I am often cooking things that may be new to him. He tries it all and is interested and asks questions. However, shortly after my husband and I were married, his parents came to visit and one night I made something for dinner that included rice. Wally ate dinner with pleasure and I was surprised later when my husband told me privately “Just so you know, my dad hates rice.”

First of all, you never would have known in a million years that the man didn’t like rice — which says a lot about his good manners, something that we clearly don’t teach well enough any more. Second of all, who doesn’t like rice? It has to be the most innocuous food on the planet, eaten by billions of people every day.

Turns out, Wally has a pretty valid reason to not love rice, or even to completely despise it. My husband’s parents were each raised in eastern Europe and their respective families pretty much lost everything during World War II. Wally’s family had lived for many years in what is now Romania, but, because of their German heritage, they were declared German nationals by Hitler’s government at the beginning of the war. Caught between the Russian and German armies, Wally’s parents fled their farm, travelling in a horse-drawn wagon with seven children and an elderly grandmother. Their trials were many and far too numerous to recount here, but it ends with rice. An abundance of rice, because rice is what other nations provided to war-ravaged Germany at the end of the war. Rice for breakfast. Rice for lunch. Rice for dinner. You can see why the man hates rice.

The Weber family in 1951, heading to America. My handsome father-in-law is standing just behind his youngest brother.

But here’s the deal: he hates rice, but every once in a while, according to my husband’s childhood memories, Wally would ask to have rice with dinner. Not because he wanted to wax poetic about post-war Europe, but to remind himself about how much better his life had become since then. For Wally, rice represents many things: a country destroyed, a family that managed to stay together through unimaginable hardships, and the promise of a nation across the Atlantic where any man — or woman — could begin life anew.

And that’s the roundabout way of getting to rice itself — not metaphorical rice, but the real thing. You have probably stood in the grocery store in front of a shelf that looked just like this and wondered “WTF?”:

Long grain, short grain, arborio, wild, pilaf, basmati, brown, jasmine — too many options is what makes Uncle Ben's so popular.

There are something like 40,000 types of rice, but there are only a handful on a typical supermarket shelf. So here’s a quick rundown about rice and how to use it:

Long-grain vs. short-grain: As implied by their names, this is all about size. Long-grain rice is a longer, more slender rice; it tends to be less sticky and cook into separate grains. Short-grain rice is smaller and plumper and sometimes referred to as “pearl” rice; it tends to have a creamier texture.

Long-grain white rice: This is a standard rice, the kind usually used for quick-cooking varieties. It is often enriched with minerals, which means you should not rinse it before cooking.

Arborio: A short-grained Italian rice typically used for risotto dishes. It soaks up liquids really well, so is excellent to cook in broth or to use for puddings, because it retains the flavor of the cooking liquid.

Basmati: Typically used in Indian cooking, Basmati rice is a flavorful long-grain rice and has a soft texture.

Brown: This is a highly nutritious and chewy rice which includes both the bran and germ parts of the grain. It requires a longer cooking time than traditional white rices. Personally, I like to mix brown rice with a standard white long-grain rice, just to balance out the textures.

Jasmine: With a beautiful fragrance, this long-grained rice is often found in Thai dishes. It has a somewhat firmer texture than Basmati rice.

Orzo: Is not a rice, it just looks like one. It is actually a type of pasta, typically mixed with rice to make rice pilaf.

Texmati: An American original, Texmati rice is a cross between a traditional long-grain white rice and Basmati. It smells a bit like popcorn when cooking and is pretty versatile for most recipes.

Wild: Actually, wild rice is not a rice at all, but is a seed from a grass native to North America. It is similar to brown rice in that it is chewy and highly nutritious and requires a longer cooking time than other rices. Like brown rice, I like to mix wild rice with long-grain white rice to balance out the chewiness.

How to cook rice: Check the package of the variety you are cooking, however, most long-grained rices are cooked at a ratio of 1:2 (rice:water); short-grained and brown rices will require more water (sometimes 1:3). Rinse the rice (if it’s not enriched) in cold water until the water runs clear (this helps remove excess starch from the grains). Then place the rice in a saucepan with the right amount of cold water and a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to very low, cover, and simmer for about 20 minutes (short-grained and brown rices will cook at least twice as long). Sometimes I put half a lemon in the rice while it is cooking to give it a subtle citrus flavor.

There are a million ways to use rice, but here’s my take on a simple Lebanese recipe that my family loves:

Lebanese Lentils with Carmelized Onions

2 cups sliced onion

1 cup brown lentils, rinsed

olive oil

salt/pepper/dried thyme

sugar

3 cups cooked long-grain white rice (Texmati is nice with this dish)

To make the carmelized onions: Heat three tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat in a large sauté pan and add the onions. Stir to coat in the olive oil, sprinkle with two tablespoons of sugar, and reduce heat to low. Stir every few minutes; if the onions start to burn, reduce heat further. Carmelized onions are best when cooked slowly — it can take 45 minutes until they are a caramel brown color and they should be soft and slightly sticky with a few crispy bits here and there.

To make the lentils: Place rinsed lentils in a saucepan with enough water to cover. Add salt, a 1/2 teaspoon of dried thyme, and 2 tablespoons of olive oil; bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low and allow to simmer uncovered for about 45 minutes or until tender. Add water as needed if they get dried out while cooking. The end result should not be soupy, but a little thickened liquid is fine. Be sure to add salt and pepper to taste at the end.

To serve: This is beautiful when served on a big platter, with the rice layered at the bottom, covered with the lentils, and then topped with the onions. Drizzle olive oil over the whole thing and serve with lemon wedges. Another beauty of this dish is that it is fabulous served either hot, warm, or cold!

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Sing a song of sixpence

If you look in the branches, you can see those pesky little robins, who made a mess of my front porch but gave me a great idea for dinner.

You never know where you’ll get the inspiration for a meal. Last night’s dinner came from a flock of robins that I spotted perched yesterday morning on our storm-damaged crape myrtle tree — that is, the idea for the dinner came from them. A lot of people around our Capitol Hill neighborhood — and over into the Southwest Waterfront area — have been noticing that we seem to be invaded by flocks of robins just before a snowstorm hits. Seeing as how we had four storms in a matter of 10 days, we have all been seeing a lot of robins lately. Personally, I am beginning to wonder if they are harbingers of snow, and so I am suspicious now when I see them.

As my husband and I went outside in the midst of yesterday’s blizzard to begin doing battle with the snow piling up on our sidewalk, we noticed even more robins on our neighbor’s dogwood tree, which stretches across our front garden. When we came back up to the house later on, the flock of birds suddenly flew out from our front porch — we thought perhaps they were taking refuge from the storm and were feeling sorry for the little things until we actually walked up onto the porch and saw that they had decided to use the floor as a toilet. As if we hadn’t just had enough fun cleaning up another foot of snow. Jokingly, my husband said “We should catch those stupid birds and put them in a pie!”  At least, I think he was joking.

And, thus, dinner was born. Now I can’t get that old nursery rhyme out of my head: “Sing a song of sixpence/Pocket full of rye/Four-and-twenty blackbirds/Baked in a pie.”

Pot pie is one of those things that people don’t really make, maybe because it is associated with frozen t.v. dinners. But it is incredibly easy to make and really satisfying on a cold winter’s night. What I love about it is that you can literally clean out your refrigerator — all those bits and pieces of leftovers are perfect for a pot pie, and the transformation gives them new life. My pot pie included some leftover barbecue, herb-seasoned french fries, breakfast sausages, and carrot sticks, to which I added some vegetarian “chicken”, onion, green bell pepper, and frozen corn.

Being pretty tired from seemingly endless days of digging out from snowstorms, I went the quick route with the pie crust, using a food-processor method which takes a cup of flour, a stick of chilled butter, a little salt, and some ice water — the whole thing comes together in about two minutes flat. You can make pie crust in a food processor, as long as you don’t work the crust too hard; they tend to get tough if you spend too much time mixing and kneading.

If the idea of making a pie crust from scratch is going to keep you from making a pot pie, then just buy a ready-made pie crust. There are several good varieties out there; I have used the Trader Joe’s one a couple of times (it does not contain lard, as many others do) and it’s a pretty nice crust. If you want to try the food processor crust, here’s the link for the recipe by Alton Brown of the Food Network:

http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/alton-brown/pie-crust-recipe/index.html

This recipe calls for a combination of butter and lard, but I just made it with 8 tablespoons of butter (1 stick).

Once you actually make a pot pie yourself, you will realize what a crowd-pleaser it is. What could be more cozy than a steaming slice of savory pie as the wind is howling around the eaves and you are plugging the drafts under the door with old towels? So make a pie, snuggle up with your family far away from the storm, and dream sweet dreams of springtime and flowers.

Now wasn't that a dainty dish to set before the king?

Cozy Pot Pie

This is not going to be a standard recipe, so bear with me. Making a filling for pot pie is not rocket science, so I’m just going to give you some general guidelines. You’ll need about 1-1/2 cups of protein and about 3 cups of vegetables. Here are some suggestions for the filling:

Protein: Chicken, beef, turkey, sausage, to name a few. I remember as a kid in New England that pot pies also often had fish in them — of course, that’s when cod was still readily available. Any kind of chunky fish would work, though, such as salmon, tuna, or swordfish. In the mid-Atlantic area, pot pies often feature crab and ham.

Vegetables: Obviously potatoes, carrots, and onions. Also, peas, green beans, corn, broccoli, cauliflower, mushrooms, leeks, and just about anything else you like. Fennel bulb is fabulous in a pot pie (a nice alternative to celery), and so are chunks of apple. I would stay away from tomatoes, or use them sparingly, simply because they tend to be a little watery for a pot pie.

Secret ingredient: I like to throw in chunks of cheese as I’m filling the pie pan (don’t cook it with the filling beforehand). I used an Irish Guinness Cheddar in last night’s pie — yum.

A pot pie filling should be pretty much cooked before it goes into the pie pan. The protein should be completely cooked, and the vegetables should be partially cooked (they’ll finish cooking in the oven). Start with sauteéing the onion in olive oil until it becomes translucent, then add the protein and brown it slightly. Then add the other vegetables one at a time, about a minute apart, stirring frequently. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste, along with any other herbs and spices (I like to use thyme, paprika, and a smoked chipotle powder). While over medium heat, add about half a cup of milk and stir to thicken. Allow to simmer over low heat and add another half cup of milk until you get the right consistency. You want the sauce to be a little juicy but not too thin, otherwise it will drown the crust.

As to the crust: You should have enough dough for two crusts. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Roll out half the dough (leave the other half in the fridge for now) into a circle large enough to fill your pie plate,with about an inch hanging over the edge. Fold the additional dough up to the edge of the pan and crimp with a fork or your fingers. Line the bottom of the crust with a piece of parchment paper and fill with pie weights or raw beans (this keeps the crust from creating air bubbles). Bake for about 15 minutes, then remove the weights/beans/parchment and bake for another 5 minutes. This is called blindbaking — basically, cooking the crust about half-way.

To assemble the pie: Now that you have blindbaked the crust, you can add the filling. It should be a heaping mound — don’t worry about that, because it will settle in the oven. Roll out the other half of your pie crust, lay it over the top of the whole shebang and crimp the edges together with those of the bottom crust. Cut three or four slits in the top to allow the heat to escape. Brush the crust with heavy cream or an egg wash (one egg mixed with a teaspoon of water). Bake at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes or until the crust is golden and you can see the filling bubbling up between the slits in the crust. Let the pie sit for about 10 minutes before serving.

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Panty — uh — Pantry Raid!

I saw this little stash in a pile of snow on the sidewalk as I went on a walk yesterday. Who needs the grocery store when you can find this stuff on the street?

Snow is coming to Washington, DC. We are not Chicago, or Fargo, or Buffalo, and we don’t handle snow well. And this is not just a little bit of snow, but major snow — perhaps two feet. It has been seven years since we had that much snow on the way, and the city shut down for a solid week back then.

There was panic at the grocery stores yesterday, and, from all accounts, the shelves have been stripped bare. I find this amusing, since we live in a major metropolitan area, not in the wilderness — it is unlikely that people are going to starve. We should be more concerned about making sure that the homeless are sheltered and warm. The rest of us will be just fine, and statistics would indicate that a lot of us could do without a meal or two.

My only nod to the grocery issue was to pick up a half-gallon of milk, thinking that we might want hot chocolate this weekend after tromping through the snow, or I might want to make a loaf of bread, and my favorite recipe calls for a cup of tepid milk. However, otherwise, I have decided that this coming storm presents a perfect opportunity to raid my pantry.

This shot is only the tip of the iceberg for my pantry, which is embarrassingly overloaded.

Our pantries tend to be chock-full of really weird things, along with the requisite bags of stale chips and cans of pumpkin that we forgot to use at Thanksgiving. The corners of my pantry are always tucked with those jars of things that come in gift baskets at Christmas; I tend to feel guilty about getting rid of the fancy jams and milk chocolate truffles, and then they seem to breed like rabbits. This morning I discovered Maple Mustard Dip, Hot and Sour Wasabi Mixed Nuts, Candied Apple Caramels, Cocktail Onions, and a pound of Dried Kiwi. Now, that’s a meal.

Of course, once you get past the Kirsch Royale Chocolate-Covered Cherries, there’s a fair amount of decent stuff stashed away in my pantry. I figure that a pantry should have enough stuff in it to save your dérriére on those nights when you actually don’t have anything fresh to cook. A pantry should also include your freezer, which can be stuffed with frozen fruits and veggies, various proteins (mine are meatless, but yours may be chicken, sausages, and leftover turkey hash), and, of course, really good ice cream. I am one of those people who picks up things like frozen challah out of the “Hebrew Foods” section in the “Ethnic Aisle” (I love the way they categorize things in grocery stores). You can pull it out of the freezer in the morning, set it out to rise while you’re at work, and pop it in the oven for 30 minutes when you get home. There is nothing like the smell of baking bread to make even the worst day at the office suddenly insignificant.

I have gone through my pantry today and found enough meals to get my family through the Storm of the Century and keep me out of the grocery store insanity. Even if the air is soft and warm wherever you are, check out your own pantry, and see if you have enough to ride out the next calamity. Here’s what I found:

Pretty sure we're not going to starve.

Pasta E Fagioli: One pound of Dried Tubetti, can of Great Northern Beans, can of diced Fire-Roasted Tomatoes, jar of Cocktail Onions

Thai Curry Stir-Fry: Rice Noodles, can of Coconut Milk, Extra-Firm Tofu, Cashews, Red Curry Paste, Frozen Bell Pepper Strips

Cuban-Influenced Black Beans and Rice: Can of Black Beans, package of Minnesota Wild Rice, jar of Sundried Tomatoes in Olive oil, bottle of Uncle Brutha’s Fire House Sauce No. 9, supplemented with limes and onions from my produce bin

Winter Stew with Salted Apple Dumplings: Flour, Dried Apples, Dried Morels, Yves Meatless “Beef” Strips, Frozen Petite Green Peas, Frozen Sweet White Corn, Dried Plums, Mushroom Broth, Red Wine, supplemented with Yukon Gold potatoes, onions, carrots, and Brussels sprouts from my produce bin.

Garbanzo Beans with Curried Polenta: Dried Polenta, can of Garbanzo Beans, frozen shredded zucchini (from my garden last summer), dried currants, jar of Farmhouse Chutney, supplemented with frozen Garlic Naan bread and yogurt from the refrigerator.

What’s in your pantry? Let me know!

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Cooking for Billie Joe Armstrong

There's Billie Joe at center stage, probably not thinking about lasagna. Rolling Stone reported that they like to have a shot of tequila before each show. This shot is from the Spectrum in Philadelphia in 2009 and I can attest to the fact that Green Day puts on a totally cool show.

Tonight I’m cooking for Billie Joe Armstrong. Well, not really, but my daughter is a huge Green Day fan and apparently their frontman, Billie Joe Armstrong, said in an interview once that his favorite meal was Vegetable Lasagna. Now, it’s quite possible that it was just the first thing that came into his head, or it was the last thing he ate, or it was some private joke that we’ll never get, or maybe he actually really does like Vegetable Lasagna.

When I make lasagna, I don’t really think too hard about what’s going in it, and that is the essence of “cooking on the fly”. I was at the grocery store the other day and there was that scent in the air of snow heading our way (and we did get 4 inches last night) and I just felt in the mood for a lasagna. It needs to bake for a while, so it warms up the kitchen and the house has that amazing smell of toasted cheese and it just makes me feel happy. Food should always make you feel happy — but I mean really happy, like it fills your soul and your stomach and it sparks great conversations and the people you love think that you are amazing for making this delicious thing with seemingly little effort.

So, I bought a package of lasagna noodles and picked up some ricotta cheese and a couple of bags of shredded cheese, because, really, there’s nothing wrong with making life just a little bit easier sometimes. Then I swung by the salad bar and threw some fresh spinach leaves and grated carrot into a container. Don’t underestimate the salad bar — sometimes you just don’t need a big amount of stuff from the produce section, and the salad bar has exactly the amount you need for just a couple of bucks. People think that’s a waste of money, when you could buy a bunch of spinach and another bunch of carrots for a couple of bucks, but if you never get around to using that stuff up in another dish, then it rots and that is truly a waste.

I knew that at home I had a couple of bell peppers and some mushrooms and a can of roasted tomatoes and a few other odds and ends. And that’s really all there is to a lasagna. I’ll post pictures and a proper recipe tomorrow! Thanks for reading.

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