Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The No-Fail Gift

Do you remember that crazy, silver spray-painted macaroni wreathe that you made in kindergarten and presented proudly to your parents as soon as you got home? Ever wonder why your mom keeps it hung up on the wall after all these years, talks about it to every guest, and yet that beautiful angora sweater that you bought her for her birthday last year hasn't been worn even once? Well, it's because what your kindergarten teacher told you was true: the best gifts are the ones you make. The mixed tapes (or CDs .. or mp3 playlists now a days??), home-made cards, the photo frames with favourite memory pictures ... and the jar of cookies with the bow tied to it. Gifts that come from the heart are almost always ones that you put your love and sweat into by making.
When I want to make a special treat for the ones that I love, I always look to my "no-fail" recipes. They're different for different people. For my Dad, it would be "fluffy cake" (a plain butter and sour cream pound cake), for my sister and best friend, probably chocolate chip cookies, for my cousin it would be peanut butter cookies. For my love, it's got to be apple crumble.

I first made apple crumble with my sister. We guessed at the ingredients and method, and made it quite a few times before writing the measurements down.I remember her saying "So how do you think we get the butter and flour and sugar to be crumbly." And I said, quickly recalling a foodTV episode "Anna Olsen says you rub the butter into the flour and sugar until it looks likes peas." We did just that, and it worked perfectly. Over the years, I've tried fiddling with the recipe, adding oats, cinnamon, or using whole wheat flour. But the original version always gets the best reviews. I made it the other night as a special request and it was, as always, very well received. So please try this recipe -- even if you're like my apple-hating best friend (yeah, she hates apples! Who hates apples?!), I'm confident that you'll take a second bite.

No-Fail-I-Love-You Apple Crumble

2-3 apples (my favourite is Empire), peeled, cored and cut into small chunks
1/2 + 2 tablespoons of brown sugar
a pinch of cinnamon
1/2 cup of butter, cold, cut into small cube, + 1 tablespoon for the apples
3/4 cup of all purpose flour

1. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

2. Place your apple chunks, cinnamon, 1 tablespoon of butter and 1 tablespoon of brown sugar in a pot and cook on low, stirring occasionally.

3. While the apples are cooking, make your crumble. Put the flour and brown sugar in a large mixing bowl and stir around until mixed together. Add the butter and rub it against the flour until the mixture has lumps the size of peas (just like Anna Olsen said!). Put half of this mixture in the bottom of a pie plate or cake pan and bake for about 15 minutes or until it gets golden and fragrant. Remove from the oven.

4. When the apples have softened, spread them out on top. Add the remaining crumble mixture and put the whole thing back in the oven for 20 minutes or until the top gets brown and you can smell cinnamon and apples coming from your oven.

5. Present it to the love of your life with pride.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

I'll always have the Weekend ...

March break maybe a week gone, but I've still got the weekend. What do weekends mean for me? Lots of different things! A weekend could mean brunch or coffee with my best friend, catching up on my marking that I haven't done all week, cleaning the bathroom, seeing my sister and parents ... Weekends are walking around outside and enjoying the sun, nice long workouts at the gym with my Mom, lazy moments curled up on the couch, long streetcar rides to the middle of nowhere... I love weekends and I have a favourite weekend breakfast that I love to have. Nope, it's not scrambled eggs and bacon, waffles or pancakes or French toast. It's oatmeal, that's right, oatmeal.

I love cereal of all kinds, but I think oatmeal has become my favourite type of hot cereal. I'm no stranger to oatmeal on weekdays. In fact, I have oatmeal for lunch everyday. It's quick, it's easy, it's nutritious and it's easy to keep all the ingredients on hand at work so I don't have to worry about packing a lunch. Weekday oatmeal usually consists of 5-minute oats, wheatbran and a bit of brown sugar, boiling water from a kettle poured over top and a splash of soy milk at the end. Paired with an apple and some giggly students watching teeny bop music videos on YouTube in my classroom, and I have the perfect weekday lunch.

But on the weekend, my regular oats put on a jacket and tie for breakfast. I have the luxury of cooking the oats in milk instead of water, and I can add a million different toppings. Recently, I've been alternating between three different types of oatmeals. Here they are. (I know some of you are probably gagging at the thought of oatmeal as a treat on the weekends, but give it a try. I know you'll become a convert!)

Basic Weekend Oatmeal

1/4 cup of quick-cooking oats (the 3-5 minute kind)
1/2 cup of skim milk
1/2 cup of almond or soy milk
1 teaspoon of brown sugar
a splash of vanilla

1. Put the milks, sugar and vanilla in a pot and heat on medium until tiny bubbles form at the sides of the pot.

2. Add the oats, turn the heat to low and cook for about 3 minutes, stirring.

3. Turn off the heat and let it stand for a minute or so.

4. Top with anything you like! I topped mine with a big spoon of skim milk yogurt and this wonderful citrus fruit salad.

This version is what I have when I need an extra special treat. I replace the brown sugar with 1 heaping teaspoon of peanut butter and add half a chopped banana with the oats. It's served with skim milk yogurt and strawberry jam. An almost guilt free PBJ (cuz oats lower your cholesterol... right :)

This version is, I think, my cuddly partner's favourite. It's a spiced berry version. I replace the soy/almond milk with 1/2 cup of pomogranate juice blend, and add frozen mixed berries and a pinch of cardamom right before I add the oats. It's topped with the same yummy yogurt and jam, but it's also got some slivered almonds.

I found it so fun to play around with the combinations of liquids, toppings and fruits that go into the oatmeal. So go ahead -- make some oatmeal, curl up with your favourite book and enjoy your weekend morning.

Oh by the way! I drizzled my oats today with a sesame seed butter with flax added to it. Soooooo good!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Back on Schedule

Any teacher will tell you that gearing up for the first day back to school after a break is difficult. You never sleep well on Sunday night because you've had way too much sleep in the last few days and you're always thinking about how fast your holiday went by. But, that same teacher will tell you that after the first hour of being back in the classroom and surrounded by children, that it will feel like you never left. And today was no exception. All day Sunday, I dreaded the sound that my alarm clock would make the next morning, and I spent a good few hours moping around, wishing that March break had just started and not just finished. But, once I got to school, I started feeling better. Once I saw the children lined up outside, ready to come into the classroom, I felt a little better still. And once my first class said "Bonjour" to me in unison, I felt like I had never left.

For me, there is something wonderful about routine; knowing where I need to be at what time, and carrying out tasks that challenge me, but at the same time comfort me by making me feel like I have a place in my life. However, there are two very specific things that I MUST have before my weekday can begin: an intense cardio workout, and a smoothie. I'll spare you the details of my workout (let's just say it always end with sweat!), but I will tell you more about the smoothie.

I guess you don't really need a recipe for a smoothie -- it's pretty straightforward and easy to change to suit your tastes and needs, but I thought I'd post one anyway, just in case there are any smoothie-making virgins out there that need some reassurance. I've read some smoothie recipes that include protein powder (which I can't stand), and others where you have to juice things first; my smoothie isn't nearly as complicated: it's simple, refreshing and a wonderful way to nourish my body before kicking up a storm on the elliptical trainer. Back in the day when I used to read a lot about nutrition, I found out that liquids meals are good to have before a workout because your body doesn't have to waste time digesting -- the nutrition goes straight to your blood stream and prevents you from passing out on the cardio machine. Since I also can't stand meal replacement shakes, smoothies were my natural choice. I hope they will be yours too!

Mixed Fruit Smoothie for Two

1 banana, chopped
1 orange, peeled, segmented and chopped
1 handful of frozen mixed berries
1/4 cup plain, skim milk yogurt (or use your favourite flavour)
skim milk
orange juice

1. Put all the chopped fruit and yogurt in a blender.
2. Cover with juice and milk -- the ratio is up to you. If you like it sweeter, use more juice than milk.
3. Blend until frothy and smooth (although my favourite part might be getting the chunks of orange that escaped the blender blades).
4. Share with your loved one.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Dinner + a Movie

I met a few really great friends in high school, and when we graduated and went our separate ways, we used to plan get-togethers where we would make dinner together and watch a movie. To make things interesting, we always had a theme. I remember planning for the very first one: three of us were having lunch at Seven West and talking about the ingredients that we would need. Our movie was The Godfather 1 and we were going to make meatballs. It was a lot of fun, albeit a bit traumatic because it was the first time I watched The Godfather and that scene with the horse head on the bed really threw me off. But cooking together was a great way for us to bond. Our subsequent movie nights were similar, The Godfather 2 + pastas, The Godfather 3 + gnocchi (I hosted that one!), Finding Nemo + seafood, Ice Age + cold soups ... As we got older, we got less creative with the themes, but still find time to get together for some good food, a fun movie and some time to catch up.

On Friday, we had a dinner and movie night, but with no theme. We made tacos and went out to watch Alice in Wonderland (yeah .. kinda random, but whatever), and we had our dinner at our new place. To nibble on, we had some beautiful red corn chips with homemade guacamole and salsa, and my friend brought over this dark Mexican beer called Negra Modelo. For the tacos, we had three nice fillings. There was a classic beef, tomato, jalapeno filling, a cold veggie filling made with black beans, tomato, sweet red pepper, corn, and this fabulous smoky ranch dressing, and a chicken filling that I threw together with leftovers. It was surprisingly tasty and was my best friend's favourite. That definitely deserves a recipe, right? As if that rave review wasn't enough, I used the leftovers of this chicken filling to make a little dinner last night. I added sauteed rainbow chard and a few spoonfuls of the leftover ranch dressing (which by the way, gets more intense and delicious as it sits!). It was a nice tasty supper and it made me feel good to use leftovers not just once, but twice.

Chicken Taco Filling

1 cup of cooked chicken (I had 3 leftover chicken thighs)
1 cup of cooked brown rice
1 diced plum tomato
1/2 a diced sweet red pepper
1/2 a diced small red onion
1 sprig of thyme
1 minced chipotle pepper in adobo and 1 teaspoon of the sauce
zest and juice of half a lime
salt and pepper to taste

1. Saute the onions and red peppers over medium heat for a few minutes until they start to soften and smell good. Add the lime zest, salt and pepper and cook for one more minute.

2. Add the chicken and cook for another 3 minutes. Add the rice, tomatoes, chipotle pepper and sauce and mix everything well. Let it cook for another minute or so.

3. Turn off the heat and add the lime juice and thyme. Stir well.

4. Serve wrapped in a tortilla or stuffed in a taco shell with your favourite taco fixings.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Blueberries + Lime = A 94th Celebration

Birthdays are a very particular thing in my family. There's a certain series of events that take place -- that ALWAYS take place without variation. First, the whole family goes out to dinner at a Chinese (HAS to be Chinese) restaurant, and then everyone goes home for presents, singing (YES .. STILL), pictures and cake.

Yes ... the cake. When we were little we used to pick out a cake at a bakery in Chinatown, and then pretend that we loved it because our dear parents had bought it for us. But let's face it. If you've ever had Chinatown cake, you'll know it's not something to write home about. Yes, it's very pretty. Sure, it's relatively inexpensive, and of course, they can write your grandma's name in Chinese upon request. But other than that, what is it really? Dry, flavourless sponge, canned fruits, and an very strange frosting that's oily, not sweet and leaves a funny coating in your mouth. To this day, I wonder what goes into that frosting..

For years and years we ate the cake and told ourselves that it was delicious. Then, one day, my sister and I decided that we had had enough. No more Chinatown cake. I was going to take it upon myself to MAKE everyone's birthday cake. I think the first one I made was for my partner in crime, my sister. It was a chocolately, moussey mess, but it sure tasted a whole lot better than Chinatown cake. And I'm proud to say that even as I've grown up, I still continue to take requests and bake everyone's birthday cake.

Yesterday my dear, sweet grandma turned 94, yes ninety-four, quatre-vingt-quatorze. 29 years ago, she left everything in her home country and flew thousands of miles to come and take care of my sister and I while our parents returned to work. She toilet-trained us, made us breakfast every morning, played the "groom" in our wedding games when my sister and I couldn't decide who would be the boy, and gave us unfaltering love in the way that only grandmas can do. I'm not sure if my grandma knows how much I love her and appreciate her (my Cantonese has gone downhill ever since my first day in kindergarten), but I hope she does, and I hope that she had a nice birthday yesterday. It was no different: dinner with everyone at a Chinese restaurant, home for presents, pictures .... and cake.

This year, it was a blueberry bottom cake scented with lime. I first saw a version of this cake at Everybody Likes Sandwiches and made it for my parents. I added lemon juice and zest instead of the vanilla and use blackberries as the original recipe calls for. This year, when I spotted 2 pints of blueberries (sadly non-local of course) in my parent's fridge and 10 limes that my Dad got on sale, I thought I'd switch up the original cake with these 2 new ingredients. It worked nicely, the lime giving the blueberries that little boost to make it taste totally tropical and not typical in the wacky month of March. The berries turned lovely and jammy and the cake was light and citrusy. And it pleased the crowd -- most importantly, it pleased my grandma. Happy Birthday, Poh-Poh!

Lime Scented Blueberry Cake

2 pints of blueberries
1/2 + 2 tablespoons of sugar
zest and juice of one lime
1/2 cup of margarine
1 large egg (or 2 tiny peewee eggs like I used)
1 cup of all purpose flour, sifted
1/2 teaspoon of baking soda
a pinch of salt
1/4 cup of skim milk
1/4 cup of plain yogurt

1. Wash the blueberries and spread them out over a non-stick or buttered cake pan (6-8inches). Sprinke 2 tablespoons of sugar over it and add half the lime zest and juice. Toss around until everything is mixed and set aside.

2. In a small bowl, combine the milk, yogurt, and rest of the lime juice and set aside.

3. In a large bowl, cream the margarine, sugar and the rest of the lime zest until smooth. Beat in the egg(s) until light and fluffy. Add the baking soda and salt and mix well.

4. Alternately add the sifted flour and the milk mixture to the egg mixture . Mix until blended -- careful not to overmix.

5. Pour the batter over the blueberries and spread it out evenly.

6. Bake in a pre-heated 375 degree oven until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean, and the top is golden brown and the blueberries have just started to spill over the top of the cake.

7. Serve warm (although it's still delicious at room temperature).

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Happy St. Patty's Day!

To be truthful, I've never really celebrated St. Patrick's Day until recently. I remember once being at a bar with friends and drinking sickeningly sweet liqueur shots chased down with Sleeman's (way back in the day when I could drink more than half a pint and still stand up!) and playing scrabble. I also remember taking a sip of Guinness from one of my friends and being totally turned off. But that was then ...

Last year, my St. Patty's day was spent visiting the grave site of one of Canada's former Prime Ministers (we left him some shamrock pins as a gift), pretending to be from the East Coast and riding the VIA.

This year, there were still no big parties or heavy drinking games, but we decided to have a nice quite celebration of our own.....

There was stew ... made with beef (which I don't eat, but hey, the broth was great!), celery root, onions, carrots and Guinness...

There were Guinness chocolate cupcakes, a beautiful recipe from Everybody Likes Sandwiches, originally adapted from Nigella.

And there were these little Bailey's shortbreads. Originally, I was just going to make the cupcakes, but I thought I'd try to get creative and try something I'd never done before.. and my secret weakness for Bailey's won over in the end. I was worried because in traditional shortbread recipes, you don't add liquids and I was afraid that the texture would come out weird. But, I remembered a cute, delicious shortbread-like cookie that I made recently that called for a shot of espresso (thank you Anna Olsen!). I took her basic recipe, cut it in half and substituted the espresso for the Bailey's. It worked perfectly. It smelled really strongly of Bailey's when it was baking, but the taste is very subtle. And it had a lovely texture as well. Crumbly, buttery and not quite crispy not quite soft. It's by no means a traditional shortbread, but it's a very delicious way to celebrate St. Patty's Day!

Bailey's Shortbreadish Cookies

1/2 cup soften butter
1/2 cup icing sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 liquid ounce Bailey's Irish Cream liqueur
1 cup of all purpose flour
pinch of salt

1. Cream the butter and sugar until smooth. Add the vanilla and Bailey's and mix around as best as you can. It will look separated and weird, but that's ok, the flour will make it better.

2. Add the salt and flour, a little at the time, mixing in between additions to incorporate well. You should end up with a soft dough.

3. Shape the dough into logs (I can't measure.. just decide how big you want your cookies and shape your log to that size), wrap in plastic and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

4. Cut the logs into little circles (1/4 inch I think .. I hope..) and place on a non-stick or parchment-lined cookie sheet. Bake in a pre-heated 350 degree oven for about 20 minutes, or until the edges of the cookies get golden brown and you can smell Bailey's coming from your oven.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Treading softly ...

When I was in high school, I had this wonderful English teacher that always used to tell me to speak up. I'm shy in nature and pretty timid when it comes to trying new things. At the time, I found it so embarrassing when, in the middle of my answer, my teacher would say "Now, can everyone hear Leslie back there?" It mortified me back then, but as an adult, I have come to realize that all he wanted was for me to express myself with confidence. I still have trouble with that today, but perhaps writing this little blog will help.

I should say that I only recently started reading food blogs, and have now become a addicted to quite a few, namely kickpleat's Everybody Likes Sandwiches and tara's Seven Spoons. I found it so inspiring that regular people were taking the time to document their kitchen experiences and share so many wonderful recipes with the world. It inspired me so much that now, in the middle of March break when I can finally breathe without worrying about who needs a pencil, or who will want help after school, I'm finally gathering up the nerve to start my own little blog about food.

So, on with the food! Before I break out the camera (which, folks, I'm afraid I'm still trying to figure out!) and start an official recipe/kitchen experiment post, I'd like to tell you a few ways that food has become very important to me.

My partner, the love of my life, works as a cook for a living and is constantly experimenting and tell me to do the same. He re-kindled my love for green beans and eggplant and introduced me to the wonders of roasted and caramelized onions.

Before I moved out and became TVless, I used to watch Food TV during all my spare time (sometimes alongside my 94 year old, non-English speaking, wonderful grandma!) and try to make some of the baking recipes that were featured (now I watch reruns of those same programs on Youtube .. hey, don't judge!).

As I mentioned above, I'm a public school teacher, and in one of my classes, we have "fruit days." Let me explain. Every Friday, I bring in a piece of fruit and invite anyone in the class to do the same. I cut them up into small pieces and everyone shares it. It's a lovely way to start a Friday and end off a busy week. Hooray for Fruit Days!

And last but not least, I need to mention the importance of brunch and coffee. Some of my most treasured moments spent with my very best friend have been over scrambled eggs, cafe mochas and homefries. Everything from "Oh my God, where should I go to school next year," to "What are we going to do for your birthday?" was discussed. Important decisions were made, rants, ideas and laughs were shared, and friendship was sustained.

As you all know, food has so much more meaning than we give it credit for, and my tribute to all the lovely ways food as infiltrated itself into my life, is to show everyone all these ways through this blog. So here we go ...