Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Memories of March Break + Really Special Bird Food

It's only Wednesday and I'm already aching for the weekend (ok yeah, so now it's Thursday but it was Wednesday when I started this post and it's not my fault that I was nodding off in front of the computer and was sent to bed before finishing). So much has happened this week that I feel like it's already Friday. Boo. I hate these weeks, but the truth of the matter is, there's nothing I can do but go with the flow and wait for the 3:34 bell on Friday afternoon.

To make my go by quicker, I've taken to consuming my free-time thoughts (which aren't too numerous during the school day!) with pleasant memories. Today as I was walking to work, I passed by a small park and noticed an elderly man scattering bread crumbs on the ground. He was literally surrounded by pigeons, starlings and little sparrows. As I watched the birds having breakfast with a kind and gentle friend of theirs, I remembered my recent close encounter with birds during the rainy first weekend of March break.

We were in Kingston, and had just hiked from the city limit bus stop, (crossing a private farm..yeah .. don't ask) to a conservation area. Although it was a little drizzly and grey, the experience was wonderful. We followed a trail to a maple sugar shack (which was closed .. but we managed to sneak in and get a private and up-close introduction to the boiling sap.. the smell was incredible..) and along the way, took a detour along a trail called "Chickadee Lane." Turns out, that during the busy season, you can take hikes along this path and your tour guides hand you nuts that you can feed the chickadees with. Well, we didn't need tour guides or nuts for that matter, to have a wonderful experience feeding chickadees (which landed right on our hands!). What did we feed them with? What attracted those normally shy little creatures to land right on our hands and have a nibble?

Granola. But not just any granola. It was granola that was actually supposed to be granola bars, but ended up being crumbled up into chunks because I didn't want to add as much sweeteners as the original recipe called for. I noticed the original recipe at Seven Spoons, and thought it would be a nice snack to fuel us during our adventures in Kingston. I cut back on the sugar, as I usually do, but this time, got drastic results. They smelled wonderful, looked beautiful in the pan, but because there was only half the brown sugar and honey in it, the mixture crumbled when I tried to cut it into bars. I was disappointed until I tasted it. Crunchy, wholesome, tangy from the dried cranberries and apples, and just the perfect sweetness level. I guess I'm not cut out to make granola bars, but this little "mistake" worked out quite well for us, as well as our chickadee friends. They ate up our granola bits and came up close for a taste. It was a snack that we shared with the birds, so it couldn't be a mistake, right?

As I'm writing this post, I'm longing to be on a bus back to Kingston and the conservation area with those adorable chickadees. But alas, responsibilities always overrule desires, so I think I'll just go make another batch of granola.. and you should too! It'll definitely make your long week go by quicker!

** On a really random note, here's a picture of the maple syrup I used for the granola. It had to be about 20 years old from the first time my family travelled to Quebec. And check out the top of the can! It's got a recipe for biscuits simmered in maple syrup! So neat! Brings back so many

Apple Cranberry Granola Chunks
(adapted from Seven Spoons)

2 cups of oats
1 tablespoon of ground flax
1/4 cup of raw pumpkin seeds
1/2 cup of slivered almonds
1/4 cup of unsweetened coconut

3 tablespoons of honey (I used wildflower honey)
1/4 cup of maple syrup
1 tablespoon of brown sugar
2 tablespoons of canola oil
a pinch of salt
1 teaspoon of vanilla extract

1/4 cup of dried apples, diced up
1/3 cup of dried cranberries
1/4 cup of chopped walnuts

1. Toss the oats, flax, pumpkin seeds, almonds and coconut together and spread out over a sheet pan. Bake in a 350 degree oven, tossing occasionally until golden brown and fragrant (about 15 minutes)

2. Meanwhile, gently heat up the sugar, honey, maple syrup, oil, salt and vanilla extract.

3. When the oat mixture is nice and toasty brown, pour it out into a large bowl and add the dried apples, cranberries and walnuts. Add in the warm sugar mixture and give it a good stir so that everything is incorporated. Oh! And lower your oven to 300.

4. Spread the mixture out on a baking sheet and bake in a 300 degree oven for about 25 minutes or until things start to smell yummy and toasty and maple-y.

5. Eat straight up as an energy booster, or on top of yogurt for a morning treat.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Craving and Missing

If you asked me what the one thing I crave most is, it would probably be coffee. We've had this discussion before. My love for coffee turned into an unhealthy addiction so now I am forced to be disciplined. Oh well, such is life. My other cravings? Probably peanut butter (also aforementioned), chocolate, ice-cream .. We could be here for days. But recently, I've been craving something quite unusual and I've realized that it's because I miss something, or in this case, someone: my parents.

Every year, my retired parents take a 2-month holiday to east and south-east Asia, and while my father's weekly emails containing updates about what he ate, what my mother is doing and the random things that they are seeing are quite entertaining, I think it's his cooking that I miss. My father worked the midnight shift before he retired. He told us once that after his seniority reached a certain level, that his supervisors offered him a chance to switch to days. He promptly declined, not because he loved working midnight-8 and then having to adjust his body on the weekends, but because if he did, he figured he wouldn't have time to cook dinner for us. Eating dinner together was a big deal in our family, so big that it became a bit annoying when we grew up and our lives started changing, and sometimes because it was always the same kind of food (Chinese) and the same kind of flavours (curry, soy sauce, sesame seed oil) that were on the table. But somehow, we managed -- quite well if I may say so.

When I moved out of the family home, one the most exciting parts about it was being able to cook new things and experiment with flavours that never made it to our family dinner table (you see, between my father and my grandmother, few other people get to spend time the kitchen!). I think my mom was too, because within the first week of being in my new place, she requested that I make her shepherd's pie and chicken pot pie. But we're getting off topic. What does this have to do with my cravings?

Well, I'm dancing around the answer because I know you'll judge me, but I beg you not to. I was craving tofu. Haha, very funny, there. Tofu, ie. soy bean curd. Not something that normal people crave right? Well, at the family table, there was always tofu. It was cooked into curries, steamed with fish, mixed with a spicy meat sauce, chopped up in an egg salad or just served cold, right out of the container and drizzled with sesame seed oil and soy sauce. I realized that since moving out, I haven't cooked with tofu, and since my parents left on their trip, I haven't eaten tofu. So the other night, I made a meal that included marinated tofu, veggies and Chinese noodles. The noodles and veggies are cooked simply with curry paste, and the marinated tofu is added on top, cold. The idea to marinate tofu is actually my sister's. She did it years ago when my parents were on their yearly trip and she could snag some time in the kitchen, and I loved it instantly. I haven't made it since then, but it was the first tofu dish I thought of when my cravings hit. Simple to make, with the comforting flavours of childhood dinners, the cool marinated tofu was a perfect match to the steamy, spicy, crunchy noodles and veg. I used an Asian wheat noodle flavoured with spinach that cooked up in just four minutes, so not only was it simple, but it was quick. It really hit the spot. So go make it! Forget about all the tofu stereotypes and just make it! You can thank me after. :)

Marinated Tofu with Noodles and Veggies
(Warning: Some of the condiment measurements are guessed. Adjust to your taste :)

1 pkg of firm or extra firm tofu
1 teaspoon of toasted sesame seed oil
1 tablespoon of dark soy
1 teaspoon of light soy
a few grinds of black pepper

2 portions (about 3 oz or 85 grams) of Asian noodles (Pasta would be great too. Just be careful to adjust to cooking time.)
1/2 a shallot diced
a bit of ginger, grated
3 teaspoons of curry paste*
1 cup of chopped red cabbage
2 cups of chopped spinach
3/4 cup of water of vegetable stock
1 teaspoon of dark soy

1. Chop up the tofu as nicely as you can and put it in a large bowl. Drizzle over the sesame seed oil, soy sauces and pepper and mix gently. Taste and add more stuff if you'd like. Put the tofu in the fridge and let it get happy.

2. Put your water for the noodles on and start chopping up your vegetables.

3. In a pan, saute the ginger and shallots for about a minute. Add the curry paste and stir to dissolve. Add the cabbage and stock/water, reserving about 1/4 cup and cook for about 5 minutes, or until the cabbage is almost tender and the stock has reduced a bit.
(While the cabbage is cooking put the noodles in the water to cook.)

4. Add the spinach and the rest of the stock/water and cook until the spinach is wilted (about a minute or so). Add your noodles and soy and give it a good toss. Cook for another minute or so to let the stock and curry and soy get a all acquainted and almost syrupy.

5. Serve topped with the cold, marinated tofu and a little sprinkle of black sesame seeds.

6. Deny that you ever craved tofu!

*The next day, I made the same dish, but instead of the curry paste (which was too intense for my dear one) I used 2 teaspoons of dark soy, one teaspoon of light soy, some lime zest and a squeeze of lime juice. Different, but equally delicious.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Beyond Peanut Butter: Healthy Tahini Treats

I LOVE peanut butter. I love it with a capital L. I love it with bananas, spread on toast, stirred into bowls of oatmeal, baked into cookies or my favourite, on a spoon. But recently, I've tried to expand my horizons and try different types of nut and seed butters. I've discovered the almost orgasmic sunflower seed butter with flax: spread on pumpernickel and topped with dried cranberries and pumpkin seeds, it makes a really tasty little snack. I've tried soy-nut butter with less success - great cooked with oatmeal, but not-so-great on its own. I gotten reacquainted with almond butter and I also bought tahini for the first time. It's not really a special kind of nut/seed butter. It's pretty popular and common for anyone who has ever made hummus, but personally I've never bought it. The one time I made hummus, I made so many substitutions that it was ruled out as hummus by my best friend. And I quote "It sounds like a lovely spread, but that's NOT hummus."

So, at the bulk barn the other day I bought a generous scoop of tahini. It tasted wonderful but intense on it's own -- probably not sandwich material, but I thought that it would bake really well into a cookie. As soon as a thought about sesame seeds and sweet treats, the taste of the infamous sesame snap flooded my mind. So wonderfully sesame-y but oh so tooth-achingly sweet. After that thought, my mind was made up: I would make some sesame-seed cookies sweetened only with honey, and I would try to make them healthy.

How did they turn out? It got a great review from Ms-That's-Not-Hummus, so what more can I ask for? It had a great, intense sesame flavour, and crumbly texture that goes great with a cup of coffee and an 11am strategic-planning conversation (don't ask!). At first I thought they were a little dry, but the texture grew on me. If you're looking for a dessert-y cookie, you'll be disappointed. But if you're hoping to bake up something wholesome and guilt-free to snack on with your afternoon cup of coffee or tea, these are the cookies for you. My favourite part? The black sesame seeds that are sprinkled on top! They give the cookies that something extra that would even make them suitable to serve your guests. Next time, I think I'll incorporate the black sesame seeds right into the cookie to give it an extra crunch.

The long and the short? Tahini = Cool! Now, should I try making hummus??

Tahini-Honey Cookies

1/2 cup of tahini
4 tablespoons of honey (I used a delicious, local wildflower honey)
1 egg
a tiny splash of almond extract
1 teaspoon of baking powder
1/2 teaspoon of baking soda
1/2 cup of quick-cooking oats
1 1/4 cups of whole wheat pastry flower
black sesame seeds for sprinkling

1. In a large bowl, beat together the tahini, honey, egg and almond extract.

2. Add the oats and stir well

3. Add the baking soda and powder and stir. Add the flour a little at a time. Near your last 1/2 cup, the dough will get kinda sticky and hard to stir. Don't worry! That's normal. Keep stirring until everything is incorporated.

4. Form little balls with the dough and place on a cookie sheet. They won't spread out much, so you don't have to worry about leaving a lot of space in between each one. Flatten the balls with your fingers and sprinkle with black sesame seeds.

5. Bake in a 350 degree oven for about 15 minutes or until the sides of the cookies get nice and golden brown. Take a good whiff of them as they come out the oven. You'll smell that wonderful honey.

6. Enjoy with a coffee, tea and good conversation.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Cleaning Up: Curried Legumes and Grains with Chard

My cupboard is a mess. I don't have the organizational skills of someone I know who has everything stored away in cute little glass jars, and thus when cooking, only needs to open the lids, pour and smile. No. I cut open a bag and then clip it with a mini alligator clip or tie an elastic band around it. Result? Many many bags, spillage, a cluttered cupboard, and worst of all, migrating tastes and smells. Example? I made granola awhile ago. When my partner bit into a piece, he said "Am I crazy, or do I taste cumin?" Cumin, one of my most favourite spices and the strongest smelling one in the cupboard, had infused the dried cranberries. Another example: I made mango coconut muffins the other day, and my mom complained that they tasted like Indian curry (she hates cardamom and cumin with a passion). Again, where did I find the bag of shredded coconut? Right next to the ... cardamom pods. Although my partner loved the hint of cumin (and apparently pepper) in the granola, my mom was less than impressed about the curry-scented muffins.

Oh dear! Am I going to change my ways? Am I going to organize my cupboard so that spices go on one side and dried fruits go on the other and everything is sealed in cute glass jars so that no mixing of flavours occurs? Probably not. But I'm working on it. One day, I will become organized, but for now, I'll just settle for a nutritious, quick dinner with all my favourite flavours while using up some grains.

I had a little of this and a little of that all still stored in their original bags, so to save space, I used them up. I mixed all the little bits of grains and legumes in my cupboard, cooked them with a healthy dose of spice, added some hearty green veg and made my favourite dish: curry with lots of cumin and lemon. It's the perfect "comfort in one bowl" type of dinner, but without the richness of restaurant curry made with butter and cream. Because I used barley and lentils, the liquid thickened up without me needing to add flour or corn starch. The spices were absolutely heavenly. With a dollop of skim milk yogurt on top, you've got a meal in one bowl with all the food groups. And a bonus: whole grain + legume = complete protein. Plus, it gets tastier as it sits in the fridge and the flavours meld. Perfect! A healthy, tasty, leftover-friendly meal that cleans out my cupboard.

Now ... if only I could get organized ... ;)

Curried Grains and Legumes with Rainbow Chard

a bunch of rainbow chard - stems cut up small, leaves cut into ribbons
1 large carrot diced
1 stalk of celery diced
2 cloves of garlic minced
1 small onion diced
a little chunk of ginger finely chopped
2 teaspoons of cumin
2 teaspoons of curry powder (I used Malaysian curry powder)
zest and juice of onelemon
2 lime leaves
4 cardamom pods
4 curry leaves
1 cup of mixed grains and legumes (I used, brown rice, pearl barley, yellow split peas and red lentils)
3-4 cups of water or vegetable stock
salt and pepper to taste

1. Saute the onions, chard stems, carrots, celery, ginger and garlic for about 3 minutes or until you start to really smell the ginger.

2. Add the lemon zest, cumin and curry powder and cardamom pods and stir. Cook for about 1 minute so the spices toast.

3. Add the mixed grains and legumes and stir until everything is coated.

4. Add the water or stock, lime and curry leaves, and give it a big stir.

5. Bring it up to a boil and then reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook, covered, for about 10 minutes, then add the chard leaves and more water/stock if needed. Cook for another 10-15 minutes or until the grains and legumes are at the texture you like. My lentils had melted away, rice and barley was nice and chewy and split peas had a bit of bite.

6. Turn off the heat and stir in the lemon juice, salt and pepper. Try your best to fish out the curry leaves, lime leaves and cardamom pods. Enjoy a bowl topped with skim-milk yogurt and an extra squeeze of lemon if you like.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Coffee Days and a Muffin Debate

drip coffee and an iced chai latte at The One

Oh ... coffee. Can you remember when you started drinking coffee? I think I really started during my first year of university when I bought a travel mug. I was hooked. Over the years, my coffee tastes have definitely changed. I started with flavoured coffees and put tons of cream and sugar into it. Then, I think I moved on to specialty coffees - the lattes and the mochas. I remember a favourite drink of the mine at Second Cup, called the Red Eye Mocha. It was a double shot of espresso, chocolate syrup and medium roast coffee. I liked it because it was cheaper than a latte or a cappuccino, but it still felt special, plus, I could stay awake through the most boring classes. And then, the years of instant coffee. I fell into the instant coffee habit during my last years of university and my first years of teaching. To this day, the taste of instant vanilla hazelnut Nescafe brings back memories of Jean Leloup playing on the computer CD player and writing paragraphs and paragraphs on the french adverb.

Wonderful as those days were, they are all behind me. I left the specialty coffees behind (here's a great comment about specialty vs. drip coffee: scroll down till you see NONFAT LATTE drinker) and reserve them only for a special treat. The instant coffee I definitely don't miss, and was actually the reason why I only have specific "coffee days." You see, drinking a huge cup of instant coffee everyday for 2 years really takes a tole on your body. I decided that in order to appreciate coffee more, I'd have to abstain, and only have it a few times a week. Weekends are a given. What's brunch or an afternoon venting session without a cup of coffee? But during the week, coffee days are only Tuesdays and Fridays, and they are savoured to the fullest extent. And let me tell you, absence definitely makes the heart grow fonder. I appreciate coffee so much more now; I've nixed the sugar, but I still put in a splash of cream, milk or soy depending on my mood, and I make it last as long as I can. My first sip of coffee on a Friday morning almost feels as if it goes straight to my veins and energizes me for the whole day. Coffee is great.

Now, you almost always need something to go with that coffee, and for me, nothing's better than a nice, healthy muffin. So, my sister has a strong opinion about muffins. She thinks that muffins are pointless because they're just as bad for you as a piece of cake, but they don't taste as good. our debate almost always goes like that:

Her: "I'd rather just have a piece of cake and totally enjoy it, than have a muffin, not enjoy it so much and still get all the extra calories."

Me: "So why don't you just get a healthy muffin?"

Her: "Healthy muffins are gross. Instead of not totally enjoying it, I just don't enjoy it at all and then what's the point? Muffins are pointless, you see?"

So, she does have a point. A lot of commercial muffins are really bad for you and don't taste that good. But the debate doesn't have to end here. What if we made delicious and healthy muffins ourselves? Wunderbar! What an idea! Coffee days just got better! I'll leave you with 2 recipes for healthy and tasty muffins (not the cupcake kind, but the kind that's both a treat and a wholesome snack) plus a list of my favourite coffee spots so you can make the most of your coffee days.

Lemony-Pink Muffins (makes 12)

1/2 cup of quick cooking oats (3-5 minute kind)
3/4 cup of buttermilk ***
1/4 cup of canola oiljuice and zest of half a lemon
1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
1 large egg
2 tablespoons of red berry jam (raspberry, strawberry .. lingon berry from Ikea... )
1/4 cup of brown sugar
1 cup of whole wheat pastry flour (in the bulk store, it's "whole wheat soft")
a pinch of cardamom2 tablespoons of ground flax
1 teaspoon of baking soda
1/4 cup of dried cranberries
1/4 cup of pumpkin seeds

1. Put the oats, buttermilk, oil, vanilla lemon juice and zest in a large bowl and mix a
round. Let the oats soak for about 10 minutes. Go grab your coffee! Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

2. Beat the egg with the brown sugar and cardamom and add it to the oat mixture. Stir gently.

3. Sift in the flour, baking soda and flax. Stir until just combined. Don't over mix!

4. Add the cranberries and pumpkin seeds and give it one final mix.

5. Spoon the batter into muffin tins and bake for about 20 minutes or until a cake tester inserted comes out clean and your kitchen smells lemony.

6. Enjoy with your coffee! Keeps well for a few days in an airtight container.

***I don't usually use buttermilk, but I had a carton that needed to be used up. Usually, I'd just use a mix of yogurt and milk. Although using the buttermilk gave the muffins a lighter more melt-in-your-mouth texture, I'd probably still stick to the skim yogurt and milk mixture. Choice is yours though!

See the writing on the mango? I came home one day and saw a mango-note on my kitchen counter from my Dad. If you can't read it, it says " Keep for another few days." No .. my family is NOT weird...

Tropical Mango Lime Muffins

1/2 cup of quick cooking oats
3/4 cup of buttermilk
1/4 cup of canola oil
1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract
juice and zest of half a lime
1 large egg
1/2 cup of brown sugar (not packed)
1 teaspoon of baking soda
1/4 cup of shredded, unsweetened coconut
1 cup of whole wheat pastry flour
2 mangoes, diced up

1. Put the oats, buttermilk, oil, vanilla and lime juice and zest in a large bowl and let it soak for 10 minutes. Yay! Have another coffee! Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

2. Beat the egg with the brown sugar and add it to the oat mixture. Stir gently.

3. Sift in the flour and baking soda and stir until just mixed. Lumpy batter = perfect!

4. Add the mangoes and coconut and give it one final mix.

5. Spoon into muffin tins and bake for 20 minutes or until a cake tester inserted comes out clean.

6. Enjoy, fresh from the oven and make the most of your coffee day. Keeps for about 2 days in an airtight container on the counter. Refrigerate if you're keeping them for longer (fresh fruit in muffins unrefrigerated=mold!)

Coffee days!!!
The One in the Only - chocolatey espresso, cinnamony drip coffee
Second Cup - old stand-by on weekdays, Hazelnut cream and Bavarian Chocolate and my favourites
The Coffee Tree - in the West end, saved for adventures, they roast their own beans
Nuts make the World go Round - little coffee stand in Kensington, funny owner, great brewed coffee when I need an extra one on weekdays
Tango Palace - just down the street from me, lots of interesting specialty coffee, good flavoured brewed coffee
T.A.N Coffee - very cool space, strong, strong coffee, another adventure spot in the west

Friday, April 2, 2010

An Updated Comfort

I have a theory about comfort foods that many of you probably won't like. Yeah, ok, I know I'm going to make some enemies, but here it goes. A lot of foods that I see as being "comfort foods" are only comforting whilst you're eating them. An hour later, that comfort becomes indigestion, bloating and a whole bunch of other things that I shouldn't mention on a food blog. This is my dilemma. So how have I fixed that? Well, up until recently, I just practiced my willpower and simply abstained. But that's no fun at all .. right?

Enter: creative, thoughtful chef-trained partner who is constantly thinking of ways to make rich foods lighter so that I can partake. Aren't I so lucky? :) Over the past few years, I've had macaroni and cheese made with skim milk, cream-free creamy tomato sauce (the creaminess came from roasted eggplant!), and the silkiest, creamiest butternut squash soup sans dairy or soy. The other night, I came home to pasta and meatballs, an updated version. It wasn't covered in rich cheese or a heavy, thick sauce that had been simmering all day. It was light, yet hearty with a beautiful fresh, broth-y sauce that went so well with the coming of spring. And to top it off, it was cooked in a beautiful Bodum glass casserole dish that we found at a thrift shop.

Now, I take absolutely NO credit for this recipe; but seeing as my partner is too shy to blog and I didn't want this wonderful recipe to be overlooked, I'm giving it to you now. I'll also let you know that it was quite a struggle getting the recipe and method down. These chef-types cook on a whim, so I apologize if some of the instructions are a bit vague. I hope you'll try it anyway, and I hope you'll be inspired to update some old favourites.

Spring time Pasta and Meatballs

1 pound of ground chicken
2 egg whites
1/4 cup of breadcrumbs (we used panko)
3 teaspoons of chopped fresh thyme
1 teaspoon of chopped fresh rosemary
1 thai red chili, minced
a dash of hot sauce
2 dashes of Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon of dark soy sauce
salt and pepper to taste

one small onion finely diced
3 cloves of garlic cut in half
1/2 cup of water
1 28 oz can of diced tomatoes (the no-salt added kind)

1. Put the first 10 ingredients in a large mixing bowl and mix together gently until everything is incorporated. Be careful not to over mix. Use your hands -- they work the best!

2. Shape the meat into balls and let it rest, covered, in the fridge for an hour.

3. Using a wide skillet and a bit of olive oil, brown the meatballs in batches and set aside.

4. In the same pan, saute the onions until brown. Add the water to de-glaze the pan, making sure you get all the brown chicken-y bits from the bottom. Add the tomatoes and garlic, and season with salt and pepper.

5. Put the meatballs in an oven-safe casserole dish and add the tomato mixture on top. Bake, covered, in a 350 degree oven for 25 minutes or until the meatballs have cooked through. Now would be a good time to put on the pasta!

6. When the meatballs are done, dump in the pasta and stir it around. Let it sit (if you can wait!) for about 5 minutes so the pasta soaks up some of the liquid and gets extra yummy.

7. Enjoy, knowing that this time, that comforting feeling is going to last..