Sunday, December 26, 2010

Soupy, Saucy Macaroni

Yeah, yeah, I know a post about macaroni right after holiday baking is a bit of a let down. I know. But follow me on this one. I know I should be wiring about eggnog cheesecake squares and butter basted turkey, but just to tell you the truth, holiday cooking scares me just a touch. I know .. I just wrote about how I love baking for the holidays. So I'm a total flake, I admit it.

Anyway, if you haven't stopped reading yet, let me share with you a very simple, but delicious and comforting meal that feels good going down and will keep you fueled and charged whether it's to get through the holiday rush, or to stay up later on January 2nd when you've realized that all the work you brought home to do over the holidays has just sat in your bag untouched since December 17th. Right...

We had this meal right around the start of the holidays when we needed something yummy, healthy and comforting to have on a cold night. I had plans for lots of holiday baking and making homemade decorations. In short, I needed to be energized, and this dish did just that. It's not a cheesy, rich, baked macaroni dish. Quite the contrary. The macaroni bakes in a very brothy, light tomato and vegetable mixture and is topped with crispy breadcrumbs and a sprinkle of grated mozzarella. The secret here is homemade vegetable stock and a little patience. It's not fancy or authentic. In fact, the macaroni isn't even "el dente" -- its slightly overcooked because it's been baked in the soupy sauce, but don't let that fool you. It's comforting, delicious and a tradition in the making. I think I'll make it a tradition to have this baked macaroni dish on the first day of my holidays. Yes! Tradition set.

Brothy Macaroni and Veggies

1 cup of uncooked macaroni
1 tablespoon of olive oil
1 small onion, diced
1 clove of garlic, minced
1 small carrot, diced
1 stalk of celery, diced
3-4 ripe tomatoes, roughly chopped (or you could you a small can on tomatoes)
salt and pepper to taste
1 small sprig of thyme (or use 1/2 teaspoon of dried)
3-4 basil leaves, chopped (or use 1/2 teaspoon of dried)
2 cups of vegetable broth
1 tablespoon of breadcrumbs
a bit of grated mozzarella cheese

1. Cook the macaroni in boiling, salted water until almost tender. Drain and set aside.

2. In an oven proof pot, sweat the onions and garlic until soft and fragrant. If you're using dried herbs, add them now. Add the carrots and celery and cook for about 5 minutes,

3. Add the tomatoes and season with salt and pepper. Cook for another 5-7 minutes, or until the tomatoes break down and the juices start getting sticky. Add the broth and give it a good stir, making sure to pick up all the yummy bits that may of gotten stuck to the pot. If you're using fresh herbs, add them now.

4. Bring the mixture to a boil, and then simmer until the liquid has a reduced a little. Add in the macaroni. Sprinkle with breadcrumbs and cheese and bake in a 350 degree oven until the top is nice and golden brown and the liquid has further reduced.

5. Remove from the oven and serve.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Holiday Baking!

I love baking any time of the year, but baking around the holidays gives me an excuse to 1: do lots of it! 2: make special things that take more time then usual and 3: give them away. If you need last minute host/hostess gifts, or even an extra something special to give to your friends and loved ones, baking something yummy to give away never fails to please. Home made treats show that you've put your love and time into the gift -- something you cannot get at the mall (btw: I'm pleased announce that this holiday season, I haven't set foot once inside a mall!).

I did some experiment with my baked goods and branched out from my usual brownies and chocolate chip cookies. I tried my hand at making biscotti, guided by Joy the Baker. I made this one, but included cranberries, nixed the nuts and tried to flavour it with this awesome spicy, cocoa black tea. The tea flavour got lost a bit, but the cookies were perfect in every other way. I also made the cinnamon sugar biscotti which were also a great hit. These get extra points because the first recipes is butter-free but still delicious!

I also found an awesome cardamom(!!!) cookie over at Rhymes with Vegan. This cookie is chewy and spicy, and best served warm. The hit of orange juice and zest really makes it special. These get extra points for being vegan and extra delicious.

Last but not least, I made chocolate lavender shortbread as a yummy reminder of my lavender experiment this summer. I used a fully tablespoon of dried lavender and good quality cocoa powder. I totally wish I could send some to Blackcurrent. These get extra points for being chocolately and decadent.

Ok! enough talk! Go bake something!!

Coffee Update:

Crafted by Te Aro: two moccacinos and a double americano enjoyed with a lemon ginger scone and a vegan peanut butter square

Ground Level Cafe: two cappucinos and a double americano -- huge space and they sell used books too!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Local Things

I never thought much about local produce and food politics when I was growing up. I got a little taste of it in university, but it wasn't until I started cooking for myself, that I was fully introduced to the world of local eating. That being said, I'm not that good at it, especially during this time of the year. I try my best, but there are just some things that are hard to live without, like oranges, lemons, chocolate, coffee ... ok so I'm not going to list them all because it would be too embarrassing. Veggies, apples, pears, berries definitely and most recently poultry and yogurt .. those I can handle. But local citrus doesn't exist here in the Tdot and I can't imagine my smoothie without that orangey tang, or my curry without that lemon-lime spark.

Recently, my best friend took a work trip down to San Fransisco and in between presenting, note-taking and mingling with professional peers, she took a little time to explore the farmer's market. Upon returning, she described to me something that we would never have here in Toronto: local persimmons. Wow. That's almost as good as getting a local lemon. I HAVE to visit San Fran.

Have you ever had persimmons? It's hard to describe the taste. They're just sweet, and fruity and delicious. I have great memories of eating persimmons as a kid, waiting for them to be smooshy and ripe, and then just eating the pulp like pudding. It was a real treat. Now that I'm all grown up, I kind of prefer the firmer kind of persimmon, the kind that you peel and cut up and snack on. To me, it's best when the flesh has just a little bit of give. Awhile ago when I came home, I found two little persimmons perched on my kitchen counter. I instantly remembered seeing a beautiful, easy recipe for a yummy-looking loaf/quick bread over at Joy the Baker, and I knew I had to try it.

I tweaked the recipe a bit to suit my needs, and baked them up in mini muffin tins instead of a loaf pan. The results were sweet, spicy, warm, wholesome, tender and just plain good. A perfect way to brighten up your streetcar ride home, or make your friend's morning before a dreaded meeting. I think persimmons are still around for a little bit longer, so it's still not too late. And if you're in San Fran, savour the local loveliness and think of those of us up here in TO, who can only dream of local persimmons.

Spiced Persimmon Mufiins
adapted from Joy the Baker makes 24 mini muffins, or one loaf

2 persimmons, peeled, chopped and pulsed until pulpy in a blender or chopper
1/2 an apple, grated
1/2 cup of oats
1/4 cup of skim milk yogurt
1/4 cup of milk
1/4 cup of brown sugar
2 tablespoons of canola oil
1 egg
1/2 teaspoon of grated fresh ginger
a big pinch of cinnamon
1 cup of whole wheat flour
1/2 teaspoon of baking soda
1 teaspoon of baking powder

1. Combine the oats, yogurt and milk in a large bowl. Let stand for 10 minutes (now would be a good time to grate your apple and pulse your persimmons!)

2. Into the oat mixture, add the brown sugar, oil, egg and ginger. Mix to combine.

3. Sift in the flour, baking soda, baking powder and cinnamon. Stir until just combined.

4. Spoon the mixture into prepared mini muffin pans and bake in a 350 degree oven for about 15-20 minutes.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Homey and Hearty Lentil Casserole

Winter has definitely arrived. Never mind this waiting for December 21 when it becomes official. It's here. My many layers of clothing, silly-looking but warm hat and puffy man jacket already make it official. And although I love winter, and snow hikes and blustery days spent inside baking and winter walks during those deceptively chilly but sunny days, I have to admit that I don't like the cold. It seeps into my bones and plants a chill that is so hard to get rid of that I feel like either staying under a hot shower for hours or putting on three sweaters and never leaving the house. A colleague at work this week mentioned that for the holidays, he was taking his family to visit friends north of Thunder Bay, where they would go ice fishing, soak in a hot tub and then roll around in the snow in an "authentic Canadian tradition." (I won't even GO there with how loaded those words are!) I was cold for the whole morning thinking about this. Some Canadian, eh?

So how do I take away the cold? Coffee helps. Lots of coffee and tea in never-ending quantities and merino wool socks on my feet ... and a nice, homey, hearty and healthy meal, like this lentil and walnut casserole. We got the idea to make this dish when we saw it on a menu at a restaurant. Although we didn't order it, it stayed in our minds and we had to try to create it in our kitchen. I can't say enough good things about this casserole. It's definitely flavourful and tasty -- my Mom even thought there was meat in it! And it's completely vegetarian, very healthy and the perfect meal to cook and enjoy on a cold winter day. It's creamy without cream, filling but not heavy and has just enough spark from the dried and fresh herbs to take comfort food to a new level. It does take some time prepare and will take up several pots and pans in the kitchen, but if you've got a whole afternoon of warming up to do like we did, it shouldn't be a problem. Just put your favourite CD on, pour yourself another cup of tea, and dive into this recipe.

Lentil Walnut Casserole
adapted from

3/4 cup of dried red lentil, rinsed thoroughly
1.5 cups of vegetable broth

1/2 a sweet onion, diced finely
1 garlic clove, minced
a handful of chopped cremini mushrooms
1/4 cup of chopped walnuts
1/4 cup of oats
1 egg
1 teaspoon of honey mustard
a splash each of Worcestershire sauce and dark soy
1/2 teaspoon of dried oregano
2 sprigs of thyme, leaves removed (or use 1/2 teaspoon of dried)
1 teaspoon of chopped fresh sage (or used 1/2 teaspoon of dried)
salt and pepper
1/4 cup of grated mozzarella cheese

1. Cook the lentils in the vegetable broth for about 15-20 minutes, or until all the liquid is gone and the lentils are tender but have not yet disintegrated. Set aside.

2. In a skillet over medium heat, cook the mushrooms in a splash of olive oil until they start to get nice and brown. Remove from heat and let cool.

3. In a large bowl, combine the lentils and mushrooms with the rest of the ingredients except the cheese, and give it a nice big stir. Pour this mixture into a baking dish and sprinkle the cheese on top.

4. Bake in a 350 degree oven for about 25 minutes, then turn on the broiler and bake for another 5 minutes, or until the cheese gets brown and bubbly.

5. Remove from the oven and serve with a green salad or steamed vegetables.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Peanut Butter + Fruit Part 3: The Finale

Yes, I have waited too long to show you the Peanut Butter + Fruit Finale. Way too long. But all that peanut buttery goodness had to be broken up a little, you know? Although I don't believe that there's anything such as too much peanut butter. This combination isn't classic by any means, but the end result is fabulous, wholesome and unique. Introducing: cranberry peanut butter bars. Since discovering a new love of playing with fresh cranberries and reading this post about raspberry yogurt bars, I knew I needed to try bar-making for myself.

The combination of cranberry and peanut butter don't seem like an obvious match, but they really are. The peanut butter is added to the crust of the bar and, when mixed with honey, provides a lovely, smooth background for the tart, mouth-puckering cranberries. It definitely wakes up your taste buds in the late afternoon when you're about to crash, or on a rainy Sunday when all you can muster is curling up on the couch with endless cups of herbal tea and a favourite CD set to loop. I could have definitely used the company of these bars this week to chase away the blues that came on after a late night at work and no one hug away the stress of the day (my lovely love was away this week visiting family). Baked goods give nice hugs too, especially when they're wholesome and healthy, which is exactly what these bars are.

End your weekend on a high note and bake these little bars. You'll be glad you did on Wednesday when you want it to be Friday. Happy work week!

Peanut Butter Cranberry Bars
inspired by apples and almonds

3 tablespoons of honey
1/4 cup of natural peanut butter
1/4 cup of skim milk yogurt
1 cup of rolled oats
1 cup of whole wheat pastry flour
pinch of salt
1 teaspoon of baking soda
1 cup of fresh cranberries

1. Whisk together the honey, peanut butter and yogurt until smooth. Sift in the flour, salt, baking soda and stir. Add the oatmeal and mix well until a soft dough forms.

2. Spread half the dough out onto a square or round baking pan. Sprinkle over the cranberries. Crumble the rest of the dough over the cranberries.

3. Bake in a 350 degree oven for about 25-30 minutes, or until the dough on top has spread out nicely, turned golden brown and the cranberries have burst and begun to bubble. Cool and slice into wedges or bars.

Coffee Update!
We've slowed down due to incredibly busy schedules and chilly weather, but we'll make it!

F'Coffee: americano, 2 cappucinos and breakfast bagel and a f'cookie
Moonbeam Coffee Co: double americano, cappuccino and French caramel flavoured drip coffee + beans to go!
Merchants of Green Coffee: soy latte and 2 very strong cappucinos with a chocolately-caramely-nutty bar, enjoyed on a rainy Sunday afternoon
I Deal Coffee on Kensington: 2 cappuccinos and a latte on one of the our very first frosty, wind chill nights