Sunday, 26 February 2012

What makes my kitchen saucy (and often chaotic!)

Instead of posting a recipe today, I though I'd delve deeper into the idea of a "saucy" kitchen, and why mine qualifies.

First of all, I accept the basic definitions of saucy as either covered in loads of delish liquidy-yet-slightly-viscous coating (and I do love a good sauce!), or of being slightly cheeky (which judgement I'll leave up to those who know me).  However, as the image of my blog shows, my kitchen cupboards/floors/counters/appliances are often covered with spatters of my latest creation AND (I'll admit) at too frequent moments, spatters of my own blood. No, I don't love and labour over cooking so much that I sweat blood. However, living in a two bedroom apartment that has a galley kitchen, combined with being pretty clumsy, combined with my impatience when doing dishes...all join forces in adorning my hands with new and lovely scars every so often. :S

So all in all, when cooking (or apparently doing dishes!) my kitchen is usually a pretty chaotic place. I have about 2 square feet of counter space on which to prepare food, and both my six year-old daughter and my cat usually decided to play a game of tag through the kitchen whenever I'm preparing dinner.

Creating in the midst of chaos has always been a bit of a challenge for me. I need to feel relaxed in order to cogitate and (I'll admit to my neurosis) in control in order to cook.

(Check out Figure 1 for an example of an impatient dishwashing experience. Accidentally loaded the dishwasher with actual dishwashing results!)

Figure 1

So here are a couple of my all-time favourite strategies to creating a kitchen with just the right amount of sauciness and the least amount of chaos.

1. Have a CLEAN kitchen. Clean-up any leftover stains, dishes, and dried food before beginning. This may seem basic, but as I said, when you only have 2 square feet of counter space, it's imperative! There's nothing that puts me off cooking dinner more than coming home from work and seeing a filthy kitchen with a mound of crusty dishes waiting for me (and unhappily as our kitchen counter is about 3 feet from the front door, it's the first thing you see when you walk in!) I must give a shout-out to my husband on this regard though--he works from home and is generally pretty good at having the dishes done when I get home.

2. Grab a glass of whatever makes you calm (I'll let you fill in the blanks) and crank some tunes! Whatever pumps you up, gets your creative juices flowing, and makes you excited! For me it's indie rock, 90s grunge, and some wacko songs that either make me laugh or bring back memories of laughter. For some great recommendations in this category, check out my page What I'm listening to in the kitchen...

3. Last but not least, get a ROCKIN' apron! For clumsy me, an apron is essential, but I don't want some Victorian pinafore or 1950s parachute. I want something that says I've got class and sass in kitchen (and that I'm only there cause I want to be! ;) I got mine at Flirty Aprons and love it! Pier 1 also has some great choices in-store.

I even bought my daughter a nifty hand-made reversible apron for when she and I bake together. Our aprons are the first thing we look for before getting started on that batch of pumpkin bread (don't even get me started on my cookie-making experiences....later blog!)

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Curried chicken butternut squash stew

This is definitely one of those dishes that tastes better than it looks! (Let's hope!) I came across a recipe that used acorn squash with curry, and the idea intrigued me... I have actually never cooked with squash (besides your annual pumpkin pie), and the so-called savoury squash dishes I've eaten have been more remniscent of said pumpkin pie than anything I would like to eat for a main course.

My husband shares my dubious attitudes towards squash, so when I came home from the grocery store with a honkin' butternutter, he looked at me askance. However, I am *trying* to cook more seasonally, and tis the squash season, so all the more reason.

So, combining the idea of a chicken curry with a squash soup, I modified the following recipe into a curry stew:

1 butternut squash
2 boneless skinless chicken breasts or 4-6 thighs (cut into bite-sized pieces)
2 TBSP olive oil
2 tsp curry
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp chili
2 tsp grated ginger
1 small onion (diced finely)
2 minced garlic cloves
1/2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp red wine vinegar
seasoning to taste

Cut the squash lengthwise, scoop out the guts, and lie facedown on a foil-lined baking sheet. Bake at 325 for about an hour. Once the squash is tender, remove the peel and cut into bite-sized pieces.

Add the olive oil to a large pot and sautee onion, garlic, and spices on medium-high. Add the chicken and continue sauteeing until the chicken is nearly done. If the spices start to burn, add a bit more olive oil combined with water.

Add the squash, Worcestershire sauce, red wine vinegar and cover the mixture with water. Simmer for about 30 minutes and then serve! :)

A nice dollop of sour cream is a great garnish. As would be fresh parsley. However, I have decided a while ago to forego fresh herbs in the winter. They are pricey and the grocery stores always make you buy way too much, causing at least half the bunch to go bad. Maybe next fall I'll experiment with drying/preserving my own herbs!

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Italian bread -- it's amore!

After experimenting with whole wheat bread a couple times (and not super-successfully, I might add), I was reminded of a very rare, very beautiful, very forbidden experience...eating crusty-on-the-outside-hot-and-chewy-on-the-inside Italian bread.

OMG (as in goodness!) Hot out of the oven, with butter slathered and half-melted on top? One of life's best experiences ever? Possibly!

In my opinion it's a shame that the mere mention of white bread now causes raised eyebrows and "tut-tuts" (does anyone still tut-tut? Probably not...) in North American society.  We are a blame-game culture and when we see that muffin top, what do we do? Blame the baguette! It's so unfair...poor processed flour, it deserves a break.

And so...with a borrowed recipe in hand (slightly modified because I'm cheap and lazy), I went to town.

*Note to self: When it says "score 1/4 inch", try to follow instructions more carefully to avoid (as my sister calls them) "gaping mouths". The only mouth that should be gaping is mine, just before I swallow my first mouthful of processed, starchy, carb-filled goodness.

Bread: one of the most fundamentally pure and basic foods can (and should!) be made from grain that's been processed the heck out of.

Here's the recipe...

2 cups lukewarm water
1/2 cup yeast
approximately 5 cups bread flour
1 TBSP brown sugar
2 TBSP olive oil
1 TBSP salt

sesame seeds
1 egg white

Let yeast bloom in water for 5 minutes. Then add sugar and flour and knead (or mix with a dough-hook if you're lucky enough to have a KitchenAid--I just have forearm muscles, which are hopefully getting stronger! ;)--when dough starts to form, add olive oil and salt.

(*Note to self: Don't wait until dough has already formed, then it's SUPER hard to add the olive oil, especially without said KitchenAid!)

Grease dough-ball, cover with plastic wrap and allow to rise for about 1 1/2 hours. Knead down, form into an oval loaf (rolling is easiest, just make sure seam-side is down) and place on a baking sheet sprinkled with cornmeal.

Cover with a damp cloth and allow to rise for another 30 minutes.
Brush with egg white, cut three 1/4 inch scores and sprinkle with sesame seeds.

Once the dough has risen to double its size, bake in a 400 degree oven for about 40-45 minutes.

* A tip I got was to sprinkle/spray (if you have a spray bottle) the loaf with water 3x during baking. Once after 3 minutes, once after 6 minutes, and once after 9 minutes. Supposedly this makes the crust crustier. I'm not sure if this is weird cooking juju, but I did it and it seemed to work. (I just flicked water over the loaf with my finger tips).

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Crackers, granola bars, hummus, and tzatziki: Homemade cooking and comedy

So my latest cooking venture has taken me far away from my usual culinary endeavors. Generally, I love to try unique and quasi-exotic recipes that take ordinary ingredients and make them extraordinary.

However, of late, I have been striving to bring the grocery bill down. This is certainly an exercise in balance. While I attempt to spend less, I am hoping to avoid sacrificing how is this done?

Well, I'm certainly not an expert. In fact, I'm sure many of you have a myriad of ideas on reducing the grocery bill that I haven't yet thought of (please post!). One thing, however, that I've realized, is that packaged foods take a heavy toll on the monthly expenditure.

With that in mind, my first step to reducing the monthly grocery bill is to replace some of our family's favorite packaged food with homemade.

So what do I generally buy that's pre-made? Usually it's snack foods for my daughter's lunch and dipping sauces for crackers/chips/veggies.

So here's what I did....

Made homemade crackers

This is super-easy, but there are two things I should tell you from the get-go.

1. Make at LEAST two batches. They will go quick!
2. Inform your family members to go easier on these crackers than they usually do. These crackers (while amazing!) are a lot heavier than your Ritz or saltine.

So here's the recipe:

1 3/4 cup whole wheat flour
1 1/2 cup white flour
2 tsp onion powder
3/4 tsp salt
1/3 cup veggie oil
1 cup water
salt for sprinkling

Mix all the ingredients and knead into a tough dough. Roll out to 1/8 inch or less. Place the dough onto an ungreased baking sheet. Score in small squares and prick each square twice with a fork. Sprinkle with salt. Bake at 350 degrees for approximately 20 minutes. If necessary, broil for a couple minutes to toast the top evenly. Once the dough has cooled, break along scored edges into cracker shapes.  Enjoy!

Made homemade garlic hummus

2 cups canned chickpeas
2 tbsp tahini
3-4 cloves of garlic
4 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp lemon juice
salt to taste

Blend in food processor till smooth. Done!

Made tzatziki

500 grams of Greek yogurt
1/2 cup sour cream
1 peeled and seeded English cucumber (grated)
2 cloves minced garlic
1 1/2 tsp dill
salt and pepper to taste

Strain the grated cucumber through cheesecloth or paper towel and strainer for several hours. Ditto with the Greek yogurt. Once both have been strained, mix all ingredients. Done! :)

Made granola bars

2 cups rolled oats
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup wheat germ
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup raisins (optional)
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup honey
1 egg, beaten
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Mix all dry ingredients then make a well in the middle and add wet ingredients. Grease your hands, then hand-mix the mixture, and press into a 9 x 13 baking sheet. Bake for approximately 30 minutes at 350 degrees. Let cool for 5 minutes and then cut into bars. Allow the bars to cool completely in the pan before removing. Store in an airtight container.

These recipes all turned out quite well, and I'm pretty excited about substituting some of my kid's packaged snacks with homemade, good quality snacks for school lunches.

And on that cheerful note, here's a great post of a spoof on Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares.

A must see!

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Pork chops stuffed with spinach pesto and sundried tomatoes: A Chop of Many Motives

In contemplating my next culinary experiment for this blog, I was swamped with numerous thoughts. First and foremost was: "I am NOT Julie in Julie and Julia." That is important to get out there. I hate that movie. I HATE that character (Julie...AND Julia Child). And yet...I am grateful for their contribution to what I call the culinary arm of the feminist movement.

For many years I was hesitant to cook. Not only because I had no experience, but because I didn't want to be branded as that "barefoot in the kitchen" type of housewife. For me, cooking was tantamount to fishing a smoldering bra from a 1960s bonfire.

But suddenly, cooking became IT. Women, men. It didn't matter. It was suddenly cool to cook. And yes, I am ashamed to admit it, but I jumped on the bandwagon. I sadly didn't figure out earlier that  cooking could be rescued from 1950's chauvinist purgatory and practiced as an act of creation. Of brilliance.

Not that I'm a brilliant cook. I just now have more respect for the act of cooking, and no longer view it as a metaphorical ball-and-chain for women.

That being said....

The next thought upon figuring out what to experiment with for this blog entry was my relationship with pork...

I am not Jewish and have nothing religious against eating pork, and yet throughout my life I've had some suspicions as to why God forbade the Israelites the delight of bacon and a good ole chop. And my conclusions were always this: "Pigs are nasty. They are cannibalistic. They eat EVERYTHING. They wallow in mud....and something to do with William Golding's creepy book."

Yet, as I get older, and money is tighter, I realize that the white-red meat is lean, cheap, and versatile!

So tonight, improvising (extensively!) on a recipe once read, I bought two butterflied centre-cut pork chops and this is what I did....

Made home-made spinach pesto:

In the food processor, I blended the following...

2 cups fresh baby spinach
1/4 cup pine nuts
2 TBSP olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup parmesan cheese

Added shredded white cheddar and sun-dried tomatoes:

Once the pesto was finished, I added...

1 cup grated white cheddar (farmer brick cheese)
8 sundried tomatoes (diced)
2 cloves garlic (minced)

Made a winter puree:

1 celery root (peeled and diced)
1 cauliflower head (disected)

Put together in a steamer and steam for approximately 20 minutes.
Then mash and add cream, butter, and salt and pepper to taste.

Fried stuffed pork chops:

Slit 2 pockets per side in each butterflied center-cut pork chop.
Filled both slits with pesto/tomato/cheddar stuffing.
Fried for 4-5 minutes each side in a sautee pan on medium high
with one part butter and one part olive oil.

Made a sauce:

Once the pork chops were finished, I added the following to the sautee pan (on

1 1/2 cups chicken broth
1/2 lemon's zest
1/2 lemon's juice
2 TSP Dijon mustard

De-glaze the sautee pan and reduce the sauce for approximately 8 minutes.


Serve chops with winter puree, peas, and the dijon/lemon sauce.


You might think "too many flavours."  However, the filling, while delicious, has mild but distinct flavours, as does the puree, whereas the sauce (having both Dijon and lemon) has a lovely zing that brings the whole meal to another level.

Cooks of the world--UNITE!!!

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Blackened salmon caesar salad: Cajun romance

As tempting as it was to go out for dinner this Valentine's day, I just couldn't think of an affordable restaurant that was worth the money. Like any other wife, I would LOVE to be taken out to dinner on V-day. Having dinner cooked FOR me, avoiding doing clean-up? No dishes? What's not to love?

Yet, I have ambivalent memories of dinners out. I'm a big fish lover, and as many of you know, ordering a salmon fillet is not cheap. Yet...(I'll admit it, our family doesn't make reservations at places above a franchise-level) the nearly 20$ salmon that I feel extravagant when ordering, most frequently arrives dry, overcooked, under-seasoned, and with pathetic sides.

Well, this V-day I had an amazing opportunity! At a Sobey's a few days ago there was an amazing fish sale. I bought a MASSIVE (and I mean two-meal's worth!) salmon for half price and it was gorgeous. Not fatty or flakey, like your regular frozen salmon, nor Ramsay-priced. I splurged and picked up two and felt extremely culinarily wealthy for having so much good-quality fish in my fridge!

So...remembering the overly-priced jerkied salmon of franchise restaurants, I decided to cook dinner (yes I did!) for Valentine's Day. The fabulous thing was that it was amazingly easy, quick, and simple!

The menu? Home-made Caesar salad with blackened salmon fillets on top.

Mind you, the home-made Caesar salad included home-made croutons made of home-made bread (both bread and croutons are amazingly simply and easy to make--later post!), home-made bacon bits (cut two to three slices into thin strips and fry--easy peasy!), fresh romaine and shredded Parmesan (no need for fresh--you can get grated, which is way better than powdered but way cheaper than fresh).

Okay, so does that sound intimidating? Trust me. It's not. Although the bread was already made, the croutons took about 1/2 a minute to prepare (and about 10 in the oven), the bacon about 2 minutes and voila!

Next on to the salmon...

I was certainly nervous about this. I have a pretty gnarly stove/oven and every time I try to fry fish it's hit and miss. Well, I found this AMAZING recipe and man, did it ever work like a charm! The key is NOT to use less butter than it calls for. Yes, you'll be tempted. You might think blackened salmon with Caesar salad is low-caloric, but in this case we're going for quality over diet! (It is SO worth it, ladies!) So work the butter, people!

Here's the recipe:

2 TBSP paprika
1 TBSP cayenne pepper
1 TBSP onion powder
2 TSP salt
1/2 TSP white pepper
1/2 TSP black pepper
1/4 TSP ground thyme
1/4 TSP dried basil
1/4 TSP dried oregano
1/2 cup melted butter
4 skinless salmon fillets

Mix all dried spices. Melt butter and brush both sides of fillet with melted butter before sprinkling heavily with spice mixture.

In a large skillet on HIGH heat, cook salmon until blackened (2-5 minutes per side). Continue basting in remaining butter. Salmon is done when flesh is easily flaked with a fork.

When I made this I substituted chili for cayenne pepper, and since I didn't have white pepper, I added more black. Because of the amount of butter in the pan, the fish cooked beautifully at 5 minutes per side (when continually basted). Remember: the less butter, the more burning! It may be full of calories but it makes the most beautiful Cajun fillets!

When they're done, let them rest shortly on a paper towel to absorb excess grease and then lie them atop the Caesar salad. YUM!

I must admit (and so did my husband!) that this is a dish that Ramsay would be proud to serve! Just make sure to use good quality salmon (and for goodness' sake, get it on sale!)

That whole meal, for the two of us, cost about 12$--less than the price of one overcooked salmon on some undercooked rice at a franchise restaurant.

Happy Valentine's Day to us! :D