Thursday, March 31, 2011

A Simple Supper



Some days just beg for a really simple supper. The reasons for fall all over the map but the fact remains that some days I just want something fast, easy and comforting. This is more or less a grown-up version of mac & cheese - perhaps it is even a teeny bit sophisticated. It is almost as simple as pulling out the proverbial blue box but I promise it is a whole lot better...in every way! The sauce is magically fun in the making and smooth, and creamy with a little pepper bite in the tasting.

Because the whole point was to be simple, I served this with a (large) salad of greens tossed with my favorite simple vinaigrette. Simple, good, satisfying.

Spaghetti with Cheese and Pepper

2 Tbsp olive oil
225 grams brown rice spaghetti*
1 Tbsp butter
2 ounces finely grated Pecorino Romano cheese
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
salt

Cook spaghetti in well-salted (salty like sea-water) water just to al dente in a large pot. While the pasta cooks measure out the remaining ingredients because after the pasta is cooked everything happens too fast to do it on the fly. Drain the spaghetti, reserving 1 cup of the cooking water.

Dry the pot (just put it back on the burner for a few seconds), add the olive oil and heat over high heat until almost smoking. Add the drained pasta and reserved water and jump back. (As you might imagine this spits furiously, so don't stand over the pot to see what happens.) Let it bubble away for a minute or so, then add the butter, cheese, and pepper, and toss it together until there is a smooth sauce. Taste and salt if you desire.

Serve immediately.


*I have 'discovered' that my personal preference is for brown rice pasta. I love the bite and from my perspective the taste is wonderful. And it is gluten free!

Another note - this recipe as written here made just enough for David and I for dinner. If you want more, just double or triple it. Easily done!

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A Blank Canvas


The marriage is safe! Not only did we weather the test of three days spent painting together but I am very well-satisfied with the result. (Actually, I love it!) It was a heckuvalotta work though, way more than I naively anticipated. All the windows that let in the beautiful light, the built-in cabinets, the volume in the stairwell and entry....enough challenges to satisfy even the most ambitious amateur painter. Now I have a beautiful - and currently very - blank canvas. What to put where? (and can I really put a hole in those beautiful white walls?!) 

(I promise more pictures of the after but since I am a little vain, only after I finish the finishing touches - which may be a week or two. Life must go on and is totally oblivious to my decorating desires.)

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Nerves

Tomorrow we are painting and I am nervous. I have been thinking about doing this for a year and I think it is going to be great. But what if it is a disaster?



When we built this house 8 years ago, I chose the perfect grey. It is warm, a bit moody, and looks good in every light. I have loved the colour and still do (hence the hesitation) but the walls have seen a lot of life and could use a little love, so if we are going to the work and expense of painting it seems like a good time to make a change. Plus, aside from the 8 years here, the colour is not much different than the grey I used in the house before this (5 years). Maybe time .... but this is an open concept house so it is all or nothing. 


Wish me luck! .... 'cuz if it is a disaster, I am going to have to pretend it's great - or find another husband ;)


(Photos by Eden Lang )

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Chocolate-Sour Cream Bundt Cake - Two Ways




David loves chocolate - and chocolate cake. I mean L. O. V. E. No wait, that should not only be capitalized but italicized. And bolded. And perhaps underlined - although that may be taking it a hair too far. Probably not. Consequently I have made many a chocolate cake. This cake "takes the cake". It is the very best chocolate Bundt cake. You may think I exaggerate. If so, try it for yourself and see. 


You can dial the deliciousness up or scale it back depending on how crazy you want to get with the chocolate you add. At the top end of the scale (and my chocolate of choice for this cake) use Bernard Callebaut dark chocolate. You can use simple chocolate chips of course, but you would be cheating yourself. Personally I like the richness of a mix of dark and milk chocolate and I err on the side of generosity when it comes to how much chocolate. (Maybe that's why this is so good.)


Chocolate-Sour Cream Bundt Cake
(from The best of betterbaking.com by Marcy Goldman & Yvan Huneault - slightly modified)


1 cup unsalted butter, melted and cooled
2 3/4 cups sugar
4 eggs
2 tsp vanilla extract
3 cups flour
3/4 cup cocoa powder
1 Tbsp baking powder
1/2 tsp sea salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
2 cups sour cream
1/3 cup milk
1 1/2 - 2 cups dark chocolate (chopped roughly)
1 1/2 - 2 cups milk chocolate (chopped roughly)


Preheat oven to 350 F. Generously spray a 12 cup* Bundt pan with cooking spray. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.


Cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs and vanilla until smooth.


In a separate bowl, combine the flour, cocoa, baking powder, salt, and baking soda. Whisk to blend. Gradually blend the flour mixture into the batter. Mix in the sour cream and milk until thoroughly blended, scraping down the sides and bottom of the bowl.


Spoon half the batter into the prepared pan. Top with half of each type of the chocolate. Add the remaining batter and top with the remaining chocolate. Place the pan on the prepared baking sheet. Bake for 60-70 minutes **, or until the cake springs back when lightly pressed. Cool in the pan on a wire rack for 10 minutes, then turn out onto the wire rack and cool completely.




**You may have noticed the promise in the title of the post that this cake has an option. This is the story of discovering that option.


We were invited to dinner at the home of our friends. I had offered to bring dessert and baked this cake - just before we needed to leave. I had made the recipe at least half a dozen times previously so I was pretty confident things would be fine. I had baked the cake for the 60 minutes (thought I had) tested it for doneness, and set it on the rack to cool for the 10 minutes. When I up-ended the cake pan to turn it out onto a plate to finish cooling, I made the discovery. It was not completely cooked. I then had a melt-down that should have cooked anything within 10 feet. (Embarrassing.) There was no time to make anything else, to say nothing of the cost of all that expensive, delicious Callebaut chocolate being wasted!!!  and I was, I admit, feeling really stupid silly. I was practically hopping in frustration. David tried to calm me down help out by suggesting that we simply take the cake as it was. It would be fine, he insisted. I insisted that it would not! Guess who was right? Yup. David! We took the cake as it was, didn't say anything about the mishap and the dessert/cake was a huge hit. Turns out most everybody likes it better when it is underdone. So, try it either way or both ways but you really should try it.




*If you make the mistake that I did when I first made this cake and don't  use a 12 cup pan (as in using a smaller pan) you will discover the reason for the lined baking sheet. This cake rises a LOT. If your Bundt (or tube) pan is not 12 cups, put some of the batter in a loaf pan. Otherwise you will be trying not to curse as you smell (expensive) chocolate burning. Just so you know.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

"If You Give a Mouse a Cookie...."





No mice in my pantry but the general concept of how one thing influences another - as in "If you give a mouse a cookie he's going to ask for a glass of milk. When you give him the milk..."* - kept running through my mind as I worked there last week. For months I had intended to clean out, revamp and organize my walk-through pantry. I had big dreams but to realize them I needed skills beyond my own (with power tools) and so the dreams were dreamed but that's as far as I got. Then I lost patience with that scenario and moved on to Plan B - which I was fully capable of in the best Little Red Hen fashion. Perhaps not as glamorous a plan but do-able. 

I love the concept of a pantry. Well-stocked and ready. Buuut...with very little effort a pantry can so easily become a mess of past-dated canned goods, the relics of meals planned but never made. Yummy treats, evidence of hunger-impulse buying, crowd the shelves and mock. And the odd things that just find a home there because, well, where do you put that anyway? At any rate my pantry was full and (being a walk-through) also busy. More or less tidy, some semblance of order - it worked, sometimes pretty hard. But it wasn't what I wanted it to be - a pantry that was pretty and really worked, the way I wanted. And finally, the real driver I must admit, was I wanted to have my favorite collection of cookbooks a bit closer to the battlefield. In the pantry.

So, Plan B: just clear a spot on a shelf and move in a few cookbooks. I figured that should take about half a day. It took me the better part of a week. Sadly. Because if you move this stuff to this shelf, then you will want to put all of this stuff on that shelf, which will require that that shelf be cleared and sorted. Then you will realize that all the herbs and spices should be rebottled and labels made, so you have to go to the store to buy more sticker paper. Making the labels means looking for the right font and fiddling on the computer. Then back down to the pantry and deciding that after all, it would fit better to put those things on this shelf. Arrghhhhh! You get the picture. Very "if you give a mouse a cookie"-ish.

At the end of the day, the pantry looks and works much better. Maybe not a magazine spread but I was so excited when I finished that I was ready to put a sandwich board out on the street and offer tours of my pantry. lol. (David dissuaded me.) Is there a moral to this tale, some great life lesson? For me there is. Every time there is a 'cookie' asked for or given, there will be a chain reaction. Some of those reactions are ever so small - small enough that I hardly notice. Other times, so great that I am afraid I will choke on even a crumb. The sorting out, evaluating, and rebuilding can take far more effort and time than I had hoped for. The end result may not be exactly what I had in mind at the beginning but hopefully, I will arrive at a pleasant place - with peace and satisfaction. Yes, I am thinking of Merin, our family and relationships.  I'm not sure but I think you want to be a little cautious about giving cookies to mice.




Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Organizing the Bookcase



Just saw this, just played the same game organizing my pantry last week, had to share it. Who knew one could be so obsessed with order/design? (probably lots of us know....lol)

Enjoy!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A Little Help

First Thomas, then Jane, followed by Hannah and finally Theo. All sick. As in fever, hacking cough, aching body, laying on the floor moaning. Bronchitis. That kind of sick. It's no fun to be sick but we all get sick sometimes. Just part of life. Sick children are a challenge and a concern. Sick babies even more so. But when the whole family is sick - at the same time - that is a whole new level of no fun. Where is the person to take care of the people who are sick? Once (long ago and far away) I had pneumonia, 5 young children, and a very busy husband. In a tiny part of my tired brain there was a wish that I could have a mommy come put me to bed, sing me a song, take care of whatever needed taking care of .... or some small part of any of that. Remembering, I wanted to be the person that at least tries to do some small part to help. So I made soup for dinner so Hannah could rest. 



This soup is chock-full of healthy, colorful stuff that looks pretty and tastes fantastic. I added some quinoa, another sweet potato and a little more water to the original recipe. Fast and easy to make -  it is a for sure 'make-again'.


Curried Sweet Potato, Carrot & Red Lentil Soup
( from Dinner with Julie  - with a small addition)


Olive oil, for cooking
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 Tbsp grated fresh ginger
1/2 cup dry red lentils
2 medium dark- fleshed sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
1 tsp medium curry powder
4 cups chicken broth
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/2 cup plain yogurt, or cream
2 cups water
1/2 cup quinoa


In a large pot, heat a drizzle of oil and saute the onion, garlic and ginger until soft. Add the lentils, sweet potato, carrots, curry, quinoa, water and broth. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat, cover and simmer for 30 minutes or until the vegetables are very tender.


Season with salt and pepper, add the yogurt or cream and puree with an immersion blender. Or you can roughly mash it with a potato masher for a chunkier texture.




I also made a simple coleslaw to go with the soup. The crunch of the cabbage and the sweetness of the dressing made a nice counterpoint to the soup. All together there is a lot of really good nutritional value in this meal.


Coleslaw


1/2 head of cabbage, sliced very thinly
2 large carrots, peeled and coarsely grated


Dressing:
1/3 cup plain yogurt
1 Tbsp honey
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tbsp cider vinegar
1/2 tsp salt
freshly ground black pepper


Whisk the dressing ingredients together and pour over the cabbage and carrots. Toss and serve. This keeps quite well for a couple of days.



(I used some very cool purple carrots - well, the outside of the carrots was purple - in my coleslaw. It was pretty and since more colorful means more good for you, I figure this is really good food.)

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Getting Closer (Bread-wise)

Update on my personal challenge to learn to bake a really good French-style loaf: getting closer. (The little mouse in my pocket would like you to know that although the above statement was delivered with suitable off-handedness, I am actually trying not to hop with excitement.)




Very close to the top of my Christmas Wish list this last year was a request for The Essential New York Times Cook Book  by Amanda Hesser. Wanting it desperately, I was prepared that it would not be among the packages under the tree. But happy, happy surprise.... it was. I had seen the cookbook in a shop window that I passed back in November and it caught my eye. When I checked it out at the bookstore, the appeal grew. And after 2 months of reading (uh huh, reading ) it I can openly publish my firm opinion. LOVE it! The reading is interesting but the best part? the recipes are easy to follow and the results are fantastic. At least for every recipe I have tried so far. Among notable successes was this recipe for bread.


The title promises something that I didn't really believe was possible. I had tried another recipe that billed itself as 'no-knead' and although it is true that no true kneading was required, vigorous stirring was - so it was a bit misleading to say it was 'no-knead'. This bread however really, truly, is not kneaded. The only drawback is the long rising time. That in itself is not a big deal. It just took me a couple of months to remember that I needed to start the day before (or get up really, really early!). I finally got myself together enough to try and the result was pretty close to perfection. I really didn't think it was possible to produce this kind of loaf at home. The crust is great - rustic, crackly and crisp. The texture of the bread? ........mmmmmmmmmmmmm. Best of all? Super easy.


This  is much closer to the bread I aspire to make - it may be that bread.




No-Knead Bread


3 cups flour
1/4 tsp instant yeast
1 1/4 tsp salt
1 1/2 cups plus 2 Tbsp cool water
cornmeal or wheatbran as needed


Combine the flour, yeast, and salt in a large bowl. Add the water and stir until blended; the dough should be shaggy, moist, and sticky. (I needed to add quite a bit more water then the recipe called for. Breadmaking is a bit of an art in that the moisture content of the flour can vary greatly and often judgement is called for. In this case, I added about 3/4 cup more water.) Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let rest for 12-(preferably)18 hours at a warm room temperature.


Lightly flour work surface and scrape dough from bowl onto it. Sprinkle with a little more flour, and fold it over onto itself once or twice. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and leave for about 15 minutes.


Generously coat a cotton or linen towel with cornmeal, wheat bran, or flour. Using just enough flour to keep dough from sticking to your fingers, gently form the dough into a ball and place it seam-side down on the prepared towel. Dust with a little more cornmeal (or whatever) and fold the sides of the towel over the top of the ball so it is nicely covered. Let rise for 2-2 1/2 hours.


At least 30 minutes before the dough will be finished rising, heat the oven to 450 F. Put a covered 6-8 quart heavy pot (cast iron, enamel, Pyrex or ceramic) in the oven as it heats.


When the dough is ready, carefully remove the pot from the oven. Uncover the dough and gently slide your hand under the towel. Turn the dough over into the pot. It sounds like it could be a disaster but it was pretty smooth. If it looks like a mess that's okay - it will end up fine.


Cover the pot with the lid and bake for 30 minutes, then uncover and bake for another 15 minutes or until the loaf is beautiful and brown. Cool on a rack.



This recipe became the foundation for Jim Lahey's book My Bread: The Revolutionary No-Work, No-Knead Method. With a title like that how can one resist checking it out. I could not and it is a cookbook that I would love to add to my (admittedly vast, maybe just large) collection. 

Monday, March 7, 2011

Pointe Shoes





"There's something beautiful and very circular about passing by something that was important to the person you loved, or touching something that once meant something to him - that brings me some peace." - Nate Berkus*


I read that and think "yes!".  Nate's statement articulates how I feel about some of Merin's things. Certainly not everything or anything that was hers but a few things. These things still tug (or poke) at me - sometimes quite sharply, depending on the day. But I want them, want to keep these things, as if I could keep her by doing so. 


Unless you have a fairly close relationship with a dancer you would probably be astounded at the number of pointe shoes they go through - and the rate at which they do so. I have no idea of the total number Merin consumed (there is no better word to describe the fate of pointe shoes) over the years she danced but I do know that it would have been pointless (Ha!) to keep track because it was either consume or stop dancing and the stopping option was not to be considered. Suffice it to say there have been many bags and boxes that have left the dance shops in her hands or mine. Many times over those years I would suggest to her that perhaps it would not be....unwise (?)...to send at least a few pair of the worn-out, smelly, and never-again-to-be-worn shoes to a final home in the dump. Because she had very literally bags of them. Bag s ! And every time she would think about it carefully - for a second - and say with regret that she really couldn't. I didn't understand her reasoning but I did respect it. How could I not when she was so sweetly regretful to disagree and so obviously attached to the smelly, worn-out items?


As things have transpired I am totally in harmony with her now. I don't believe there are many objects that I treasure more highly than those same smelly, worn-out shoes. They are a tangible and visual reminder of Merin in many ways. The times we drove home from class, late at night after hours of class, with her tired (very ) smelly feet propped on the dashboard of my car, both of us laughing about the stink. Pointe shoes hanging to "dry out" on closet handles or chair backs. Her devotion to, and passion for, ballet. The hours spent together trying to find the perfect fit for what are, in the end, objects of torture. Her joy in expression that dance was to her. Shoes carefully wrapped in their ribbons and tucked heel into toe, neatly ready - so very Merin. That she was partial to Freed ribbons - hard to find here and so used and reused on multiple pairs of shoes until they were too short to tie. The sweet way she thanked me for ....a new pair (or pairs), sewing on the ribbons and elastics when she was overwhelmed with her university studies, teaching, rehearsing, reaching for perfection. 


Of the bags and bags of pointe shoes I found among her possessions as I cleaned out and boxed up the little home she and Mike shared, I have only a few left for myself. It seems that those worn-out pointe shoes say 'Merin' to those who knew her well and love her so much. I am happy that there were so many pairs to share. I am happy that I have a basket of what is left in my sewing room - where I see them daily - reminding me and bringing me comfort. And I agree with Nate - there is something beautiful and circular about passing by them.




*In the March 2011 issue of "O, the Oprah Magazine"





Saturday, March 5, 2011

Oatmeal Pancakes


In honour of the tradition of celebrating the weekend with breakfasts that are a bit more work special than a bowl of Cheerios I found a recipe for Oatmeal Pancakes. I may have mentioned that in my (humble) opinion, regular pancakes are about as appropriate for breakfast as cupcakes - and not as tasty. They are pretty much empty of anything that resembles the nutrition one needs after the night's lengthy fast. But I like the change of pace that pancakes offer. The romantic memories of pancakes for breakfast at my Grandma B's are too persistent to ignore. And then there is the opportunity for dressing the pancakes with all sorts of yummy toppings....like Vanilla Pear Jam. I cannot resist the temptation and so I temper it with pancake recipes that offer some redemption. Like oatmeal. Initially I was just looking for another vehicle to get the Vanilla Pear Jam from jar to stomach but these pancakes delivered even with simple maple syrup as a topping. 


Oatmeal Pancakes
(adapted from Good to the Grain )


3/4 cup oat flour*
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 Tbsp honey
2 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp sea salt
3 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted (plus more for pan)
1 1/4 cup milk
1 cup cooked oatmeal**
1 Tbsp molasses (not blackstrap)
2 large eggs


Combine the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Add remaining ingredients together in a smaller bowl and mix until thoroughly combined. Gently fold the wet ingredients into the dry with a light hand.


Heat a large heavy frying pan over medium heat, then lower to medium-low. Rub the pan generously with butter and drop 1/4 cup dollops onto pan. When bubbles appear, flip and cook until bottom is deep, golden brown. Re-butter pan between batches.


* 1 cup rolled oats processed in my blender yielded 3/4 cup oat flour
** Make oatmeal by adding 1/2 cup rolled oats to 1 1/4 cups water, bring to a boil and simmer for 5 minutes.


For the topping extravaganza: 
sliced strawberries over thick yummy yogurt
Vanilla Pear Jam and thick yummy yogurt
maple syrup (with butter)
strawberries...with maple syrup.....
you get the idea.


As you can see, I am concerned about nutrition but not obsessed. Ha! Hope you enjoy these as much I did.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Vanilla Pear Jam



When I came across this recipe...(well, to be honest I was hungry) I wished that I had pears and energy and I would have been in the kitchen never-minding that it was 10:30 pm. Since I did not have pears I was off to the Farmer's Market the very next day, where I bought some lovely green D'Anjou pears. Unfortunately they were green as regards both colour and ripeness - so I had to have another lesson in delayed gratification wait for six long days to make and then taste this jam. This is a small-batch recipe (making 8 half-pint jars) so it is not a huge investment in time. The dividends are pretty fantastic though.

We have tried this with a nice sharp cheese on flatbread. Then with almond butter on celery. Of course on toast. But most deliciously drizzled (generously) over some nice thick Greek yogurt and topped with chopped dark chocolate. I am pretty sure I heard angels singing.






Vanilla Pear Jam
(from Food in Jars with a very little tweak)

8 cups chopped pears* (no need to peel)
2 vanilla beans, split and scraped
4 cups sugar
1 package pectin crystals

In a large, heavy pot combine chopped pears, sugar and vanilla beans. Cook, stirring frequently, over medium heat until the sugar melts and the fruit can be easily mashed with the back of a wooden spoon. Remove the vanilla bean pods and use an immersion blender to make a fairly smooth sauce.

Stir in the pectin and bring the mixture to a rolling boil. Boil for five minutes. Remove from heat.

Fill hot, sterilized jars. Wipe rims to be sure they are clean. Apply lids (that have been simmering in water while you are cooking your jam) and screw on rims. Process jars in a hot water canner for 10 minutes (that is boil for 10 minutes). Remove jars from canner and place on a towel -lined counter to cool. When they are completely cool (after a couple of hours), the lids should be sealed. You can check the seal by pushing down on the center of the lid - if it is sealed it will be slightly concave and solid feeling.

Makes 8 half-pint (or 250 ml) jars.


*I used mostly green D'Anjou with a couple of Red D'Anjou pears (just because I liked the way the red ones looked at the market and I thought that perhaps the red skins might warm up the colour of the jam a bit) but any smooth-skinned pears should work equally well.

I have already given away half of what I made (to carefully selected and especially well-loved people) and promised one of the remaining jars to Jonathon. Hmmmmm, probably need to add pears to the list for the Farmer's Market run tomorrow!