Saturday, January 31, 2009

Cafe Des Beaux Arts (Palm Dessert, CA)

I know I am starting to sound like a broken record, but I LOVE California in the winter. The other day we went shopping along El Paseo to see what kind of stuff we would be buying on our trip if we were rich. We took a little break mid day to have lunch at Cafe des Beaux Arts. My review will be short and sweet - vacation style.

It was a nice lunch, but nothing spectacular for the price. The real draw is getting to sit in the sun and people watch. Norm and mom had the smoked turkey croissants with cheese and the usual fixings. They both found it to be pretty standard. I had curried turkey salad on top of a papaya, and other melons. It was good, but seeing as it was the special, I didn't get the full description, so I didn't realize that it would be packed full of raisins - gasp! (I am not a raisin fan, but ate them anyway). It was nice and light, and the fruit was a nice touch at lunch, but the turkey salad didn't have much curry flavor to it at all. I guess it is meant to be subtle and therefore appeal to those that don't want a ton of curry, but if I am ordering curried anything, I generally want a fair amount of curry flavor. Lunch entrees ran around the $12-15 mark, which is a bit pricey for lunch in my books, but I guess we were in an area of town where that should be expected. For the price though, I would rather eat mom's lobster mac and cheese from the other day.


Friday, January 30, 2009

Perfect Peppery Potatoes

I love, love, love potatoes. And bread. And rice. Basically, if it's carbs I'm all over it. I could probably post at least a fortnight's worth of different potato recipes, but I don't think my waistline would thank me. While Court is chillin' down south, I'm "chilling" here and sticking with winter comfort foods.

For these, it's best to use the smallest baby potatoes you can find as you can then eat them whole. I love the feeling of breaking through the crisp skin to find perfect fluffy potato inside. Pepper is extremely under-rated as a seasoning, and it's used to fabulous effect here. If you're cooking for anyone who doesn't like things spicy, you'll have to tone it down a bit.

Roast Potatoes:
680 g/1.5 lbs baby potatoes
a few glugs of olive oil
lots of freshly ground sea salt & black pepper

Preheat the oven to 400F/200C, and place your baking dish inside to preheat as well. Add all the ingredients to the dish and toss around to coat. If you're unsure on how much salt & pepper to use, just keep going until it looks like too much. These are really spicy, and I like to open up the grinder so the pepper is grounder more coarsely than usual. Bake for 50-60 minutes.


Thursday, January 29, 2009

Holiday Breakfast

This is what breakfast looks like here. We picked it off the tree and then served it up for breakfast. Yup, that's it - I'm on vacation!


Tuesday, January 27, 2009

California Dreamin'

I'm on vacation! We are down visiting my parents in Palm Springs, escaping the cold of Edmonton winter, and enjoying a lot of food experiences that I wouldn't be having at home (either things we don't have or things we don't have at this time of the year). This post is nothing but a mix of food porn and rubbing it in that I am in the sunshine.

We arrived here just in time for a late lunch, and even though it was hot dogs, i was thrilled because we got to have them BBQ'd. Hot dogs are pretty much the opposite of fancy food, but they are delish when you get to have them hot off the BBQ and eat them outdoors in the sunshine. Mom had a couple of dips for us to have with chips on the side, and fresh strawberries that actually had some taste to them.

This morning, we were off to the College of the Dessert Street Fair. It was like a mix between a flea market and a farmer's market. Really, it was more like 90% flea market at this time of year, but there were still a few items that i wanted to photograph just for the joy of having seen them piled up in a stand outdoors. I have never seen a baby pineapple being sold before, but they are just like cute little pineapple, just a bit larger than the limes they were right beside.

After hitting up the market, we went for lunch at the Indian Wells golf course. My mom had the lobster mac and cheese, which sadly made my homemade mac and cheese pale in comparison, and I had a shrimp quesadilla. The whole group enjoyed a number of fruity cold drinks while we ate on the patio.

Finally, on the way home we stopped at a Trader Joe's store to drool over some of the different food items that they stocked. I couldn't pass up getting a couple bottles of the wine they all call "two buck chuck." The price is right, and the lady in front of me in line was telling me that it is good enough that it wins blind taste tests from time to time. To be honest, if it doesn't taste like vinegar, it will be a good deal. I also grabbed some mixed root vegetable chips to give a try. I have heard that they aren't much more valuable for you nutritionally than normal potato chips, but I just wanted to try something a bit different.

Did I mention that I picked the orange I ate for breakfast off the tree in the backyard? HAHAHAHA. I'm in California, and most of you are not!


Monday, January 26, 2009

Happy Australia Day!

Living in England with Australian flat-mates gave me an enduring love for Vegemite, Tim-Tams, Jaffas, and - best of all - fairy bread. You'd think this was meant only for children, but I first tried it at an event at the Australian Embassy in London. It's so delicious and such a guilty pleasure for me. All you need is white bread, margarine, and hundreds-and-thousands (rainbow round sprinkles will do, as I unfortunately can't find the pastel version here). Enjoy!


Sunday, January 25, 2009

Cheese Tasting From Paddy's

Paddy's Cheese Market used to be right across the street from me when I lived just off of Whyte ave. Just after I moved downtown, it moved to a small minimal area just west of downtown. Finally, once I had moved to St. Albert, I got a chance to finally visit this local retailer, and I realized what I had been missing the whole time. I had always assumed that specialty stores equated to very high prices, but really, the price is great, especially when you factor in the quality. I now regularly pop in to pick up some cheese. I love that you can get the amount that you want, as opposed to a huge chunk. It ensures that I don't end up spending money on cheese that will go bad before I can eat it.

For Christmas 2008, Brooke got us each "something by the month." My husband was getting cookies by the month from her, my father in law was getting cakes, and I was given cheese. It was an excellent idea, and while the baking kept up pretty well, I didn't end up getting cheese every month as expected. To make up for it though, Brooke decided to have me over one evening to do a cheese tasting to make up for the shortfall. I was thrilled!

I gave Brooke carte blanche on picking the cheeses, and with some help from the knowledgeable staff at Paddy's, we got a diverse assortment. Going counter clockwise starting from the left on the wooden fish plate, we got Appenzeller, Riopelle, Wensleydale, Pont Couvert, St. Paulin, and finally Pont L'evesque. We had a number of other food items to enjoy with the cheeses, including blackberries, dried apricots, almonds, pear chips (that Brooke baked just before I arrived, and tasted like pear candy), melba toast and french bread slices. As we went along, we added in a cured ham, some balsamic vinegar, honey, sundried tomatoes, vegemite and marmite, just to try some different combination.

We started with the Riopelle. It was the softest cheese in the bunch, and was like a creamier, slightly sour tasting brie. This cheese was one of both of our favorites due to it's texture. You can actually spread it onto bread like butter, and when you eat it, it is lovely to roll it around in your mouth. I loved it with the pear chips crumbled on top so that the slight sour taste of the cheese was contrasted with a delicious crispy sweetness.

Next up was the Pont L'evesque. It is similar to brie, but slightly more firm, and very very mild in taste and is not stinky at all. It was nice paired with the sweeter items such as the fruit and the honey. This is a safe choice for those that don't want a strange cheese.

Third we gave the St. Paulin a go. It reminded me of a cross between cheddar and gouda. It had a mid range firmness, and would be a good choice for sandwiches. It didn't pair all that well with fruit in my opinion, but it went nicely with the cured ham and the nuts.

Fourth up was the Pont Couvert. It was the other front runner of the evening for the best cheese of the bunch. It was a bit of a surprise. The rind looks very rough, and the colour gradient changes from the edge to the center. We expected it to be firmer, but the center was actually quite creamy. It tasted like a mild goat cheese or a very mild version of a stilton (seeing as stilton is quite strong). I loved this cheese with blackberries! I don't know why, but it was just a magical combination for me. It was so good, it almost ended the night for me as I was getting pretty full.

We followed that up with the Appenzeller. Brooke did not like this cheese at all, but I didn't mind it. It was like a stronger swiss cheese. It would probably be nice on a french onion soup. It was nice with nuts, as they toned it down a bit, and I had leftovers the next day melted on a tuna sandwich, which was tasty because both the cheese and the tuna were strong enough to hold their own. Beware of keeping this in the fridge as it is very stinky, and stinks up the place.

Our last cheese was the Wensleydale. It was very crumbly and difficult to eat in pieces. I expected it to have a strong, salty taste, like a feta, but it didn't at all. It was surprisingly mild, and I can't say I liked it much. I think it was the disconnect between the texture and the flavor. I expect mild cheeses to be creamy, and after some of the stronger cheeses, it just was not a stand out for me. Brooke didn't mind it and thought it might be nice in a salad.

Having a cheese tasting is a great way to spend an evening in. You can also have fun with wine pairings to spice it up a bit. The staff at Paddy's can be very helpful in putting together a variety of flavors and textures for you to experiment with, and new cheeses are a great way to create new recipes!


Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Cuban

Recently, my mum was looking for something different to do with pork loin, so I pointed her to Mary's Tuscan Pork Loin (which is fantastic, by the way). This also made for delicious leftovers - the meat was pink and tender enough to be shredded easily. When I was over the next night, I decided to try to copy my favourite panini from The Free Press Bistro. This was a little difficult without a panini press, but necessity is the mother of invention! In lieu of a press, I wrapped the sandwiches in foil and placed a heavy stoneware dish on top while baking.

The Cuban:
1 loaf french bread
1 roasted pork loin, shredded
cooked ham, sliced thin
dill pickle, sliced
swiss cheese
dijon mustard

Cut the ends off the loaf, then slice through horizontally. Divide the loaf into 4 even sandwiches. Spread with butter and dijon, then pile with pork and ham and top with pickle and swiss cheese. Place the four sandwiches back together into a loaf shape and wrap with foil. Bake in a 350f/180C oven for 30 minutes, weighed down with a cast-iron skillet or heavy oven-proof dish.

This served four very generously, with a side salad of butter lettuce, apple, and avocado with a wholegrain mustard vinaigrette.


Friday, January 23, 2009

Homestyle Mac & Cheese

I have a love/hate relationship with Mac and Cheese. I love the homemade stuff, but I am not keen on the packaged stuff made with fluorescent yellow powder, and even homemade, I get a bit put off by stuff like velveta and cheese whiz being included in the recipe (even though I know they help with the consistency). I found this recipe surfing the web the other day, and was pleased to see it was someone out of Calgary trying to recreate a favorite dish off of a local restaurant down there. Maybe next time I head south I can stop in and compare for myself. Either way, I know it tasted great, and the Oka cheese and whole grain mustard made it feel a little gourmet. What is better than comfort food with a gourmet twist!?!?

I halved this recipe and it fed two people quite generously:
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon flour
½ cup breadcrumbs
2 tablespoons Parmesan grated
2cups milk
1 tablespoon grainy mustard
250g Oka grated (I found Oka at Superstore in the cooling bin with the goat cheese and brie)
280g old cheddar (3yr or older) grated
ground black pepper
500g fusilli or macaroni

Preheat oven to 400F. Boil water and cook pasta. While pasta is cooking, melt butter in a saucepan and add flour to make a roux, then gradually whisk in the milk. Add mustard, Oka, cheddar and pepper to taste.

Mix pasta and cheese sauce and pour into oven proof dish. Mix breadcrumbs and Parmesan and sprinkle over the pasta mixture, bake in oven for 15 to 20 minutes (less time for a runnier sauce).
I loved this dish, and it is so quick and easy to make. I think it would even be a fun starter for a dinner party if you made little individual servings in ramekins. I used more breadcrumbs than the recipe call for just because I like having a good crunchy crust to go with the creaminess of the cheese and pasta.


We're in the News!

For those of you living in St. Albert, check us out today in the Saint City News. For those not, check us out online in the Jan. 23 issue on page 12. Yay!


Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Dish for Fork Fest

Hurrah for Fork Fest! Court introduced me to it a few years ago, and now it's one of my favourite times of the year. For the first night of Fork Fest, we chose The Dish and out of the four of us only Court had been there before. It is a small bistro and, for those of you who have never been, can be easy to miss as the sign is hard to see from the road. Our two other companions arrived late as they had trouble finding the place. Although there is no dedicated parking (only metres), none of us had any problems finding parking within a few blocks.

The Fork Fest menu was fantastic value. For $20 you chose from a starter soup or salad, then a main with a side (most offered soup or salad as a side), followed by dessert. As most of us were torn between trying the soup or salad, we were happy to hear that the mains came with a side as it meant we got to try both. The service was also very good, and our server was able to answer all of our questions and did not make us feel rushed. Now, onto the food!

For the soups, my Creamy Tomato Basil was a bit too much like a pasta sauce for me; it was quite thick and the cream was a garnish on top. Court tried the Shrimp & Corn Chowder, and said it was good but not unreal. I was really looking forward to the salad of Honey Greens with carrots, onions, artichoke hearts and a red wine honey vinaigrette. I thought the vinaigrette was very good, but there was only one piece of artichoke and the choice of (I think) romaine lettuce didn't really work - I would have preferred a softer green such as arugula.

The mains were a big hit with everyone. The Chicken Pesto Pasta with artichoke hearts had more cream than pesto and was proclaimed to be delicious and the Bison Chili with sour cream & cheese was also a success. Court chose the Curried Turkey Burger which arrived a bit charred with a crisp bun; she doesn't often choose a burger, but said it was delicious and very curry-ish. I had the Deep Dish Quiche with mushrooms, peppers, spinach and Fontina cheese and it was very good. I don't often choose the vegetarian option, but finding surprise pockets of cheese all through the quiche definitely made up for the lack of meat.

After the success of the mains, dessert did not disappoint. They were the stand-out hit of the night. The Dish does not list their desserts on the menu, but have a rotating seasonal dessert tray that they bring around at the end of the meal. Before our companions arrived, Court and I had eavesdropped on the next table over and heard the list of choices so we were looking forward to it all night. There was a selection of five different desserts; the four of us each chose something different and no-one was disappointed. The photo shows in order: Brownies with ice cream and cream, Mango and White Chocolate Bread Pudding with cream (warm, moist, and delicious), Sticky Toffee Pudding with cream (mildly spiced and rich), and Lemon Tart in Phyllo with raspberries and cream (just the right mix of tart and sweet). My Lemon Tart was so good that I had to finish it, even though that meant I was still full the next morning

While most of our dinner choices were not on the regular menu, you can check out the majority of the Fork Fest menu at Original Fare. They use seasonal ingredients where possible, and they get a lot of their ingredients from local producers - supporting local growers and keeping their carbon footprint down. Court said they also have a great little "secret garden" patio in the back during the summer. Once it gets warmer, I'll have to go back!


Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Walnut Banana Bread

I always find myself buying bananas because I think they're healthy, even though I don't really like them. Or rather, I only like them at that specific point of ripeness that comes just before they go off. Unsurprisingly, this leads to a lot of black bananas that are only good for baking. I've been looking for a long time for a good banana bread, and have been consistently disappointed. But just the other day I was browsing Culinaria Kitchen and found this recipe that looked like a perfect base to adapt to my own tastes.

Walnut Banana Bread:
1/2 cup margarine
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 cup sugar
3 bananas, mashed
2 eggs
1/4 of a fresh grated nutmeg
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp baking powder
2 cups flour
1/4 cup finely chopped walnuts

Cream margarine and sugars together, then mix in the remaining ingredients. Bake at 325F for 1 hour 15 minutes in 1 greased loaf tray, or 50 minutes in 3 small greased loaf trays. This was terrific, but might be made even better with the addition of a 1/4 cup of chopped dark chocolate.


Red Ox for Fork Fest

Oh tragedy! After going to the Dish day one of Fork Fest (review coming), I forgot to recharge my camera and thus have no pictures of my delicious meal at the Red Ox Inn from last night. I will make an effort to describe my meal in as much detail as possible, but I guess now you will all have to go and see it for yourself, and that's not a bad thing.

Although the regular menu at Red Ox is fantastic, I couldn't pass up the Fork Fest deal. The Red Ox website has the special menu posted under Upcoming Events, or you can find it at the Original Fare website. It offers some choice, which is nice, and between my husband and I we tried most of it.

Finding the restaurant can be a bit of a trick. It's a little off the beaten track, nestled into a sort of strip mall in the middle of residential Strathern (by where Folk Fest is held). Make sure you take the address with you. Walking in, it is a bit surprising that the restaurant itself is so tiny. The dining area is L shaped, and only has about 10 - 15 tables, depending on how they are arranged. There are three booths (one at each end and in the corner), and then wooden tables for two span between them. The decor is very simple and elegant. It is cozy, but having been there a number of times, most diners keep the atmosphere pretty intimate. That being said, about half way through our meal last night there was a woman with a voice that carried through the restaurant, and we were able to follow all of her conversation from a few tables away (so sorry to point fingers if this was you, but it can happen).

My husband started by ordering a beer, and myself a glass of the Malbec. I enjoyed it, but as mentioned in the past, I have pretty much zero skills in the wine connoisseur department. I just like wine.

We started with one goat cheese salad (him) and one mushroom soup (me). The salad was pretty much as one would expect. The goat cheese is served as a warm gooey medallion perched on top of spinach, almonds, bacon, and dried cranberries with a port dressing. It nicely combines some very strong flavors. The soup was excellent. It was creamy, and the mushrooms were pureed as opposed to being left in chunks. It had a bit of a peppery taste, and was topped with a gruyere-mushroom rye crostini that added a nice bit of crunch. The earlier-mentioned woman a few tables down proclaimed it to be the best soup she had ever had. The portions were appropriately sized given that two more courses were to follow.

For mains, we both went for the pork. We are the kind of people that always seem to forgo pasta or fish at restaurants in favor of meat. I guess that makes us true Albertans? I did see the Arctic char and it looked nice, and was even tempted for a moment given that I do like ratatouille quite a lot. The pork chop did not disappoint though. It was served with the bone still attached, and it was roughly the size of two of my girl fists (huge). It was cooked to perfection, with a tiny bit of pink juice keeping it tender and moist. The Moroccan BBQ sauce and fruit chutney were a lovely break from some of the winter flavors that we typically see. It was tangy and tropical tasting, and I loved it. My husband wasn't quite as taken with the chutney, but he generally does not deviate from the Canadian fruit trilogy of apples, oranges and bananas - I know, I could just cry over it! The chop was served with herbed rice, which was fairly plain, as rice tends to be, but it did absorb the additional sauce nicely. There was also a light colored savory cabbage that contrasted the sweetness of the chutney and sauce nicely, and some steamed veggies, including carrots, broccoli, and green beans that were all cooked well. I enjoyed the fact that this dish was a bit different than the typical winter comfort food. I felt like it woke me up a bit. It was a bit larger than I needed, and I ended the evening a bit too full, but can you really complain about that? Also, my husband was pleased at the portion size as he is quite annoyed when high end restaurants leave him feeling hungry at the end of a meal.

To finish, I gave the blueberry and white chocolate bread pudding a try, after reading rave reviews from a fellow food enthusiast on Chowhound. My hubby stuck with the warm chocolate cake, a previous favorite of both of ours. Both of them were absolutely delicious! Generally I am a huge chocolate lover, but the warm bread pudding, in a pool of decadent creme anglaise did not leave me disappointed. The texture was divine. It felt satisfyingly substantial without feeling too heavy, and in contrast the crème seemed delicate. My husband gobbled the chocolate cake down before I had a chance to steal a bite, but having eaten it before, I know that it too somehow manages to be luxuriously rich, while not seeming too dense. Oh thank goodness I am not able to replicate this at home or I would be severely overweight.

The wait staff at the Red Ox Inn is truly what professional wait staff should be like. They float around so that they are readily available should you need anything, yet they go to great lengths to make sure they are not interrupting your conversations to ask you how your first bite was. I appreciate that when I am out for a nice dinner.

All in all, the Red Ox is still one of my favorite dining spots, and I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a nice high end dining experience, especially when Fork Fest is running and there is extra value to be had.


Monday, January 19, 2009


The entertaining just does not stop over here! My parents were visiting from down south, so I hosted some family dinners in celebration of that. The first time I did not have enough appetizers to appease my father until dinner, so this time I was determined not to have that problem again. Although I had one appie on the roster (the shrimp blossoms), I figured last minute that I would add another by revising one of my favourite lunches ever so slightly.

I have posted in the past about my love of mango with brie as a flatbread at lunch, so it was a quick change to make that into a little appetizer. I left out the onion, since it would be a bit fiddly to add, and simply cut up pieces of yellow pepper, mango and brie to pile on a little square of flatbread. I picked yellow pepper instead of red so that the whole thing was yellow, which I thought made it extra cute.


Happy Fork Fest!

Today is one of my favorite days of the year - the first day of Fork Fest!!! Sadly, I will be missing the second week as I will be down in California (is it really sad though?), but before I leave I will be hitting up a couple of the participating venues. Check out the info at the Original Fare website, most of the menus are up for your perusal.

The Original Fare group is a group of independent Edmonton restaurants that pool together for marketing purposes. Having eaten frequently at many of the member restaurants, I can say that there are some great deals to be had here. Each restaurant puts together a three course menu at either the $20 or $35 price point. Considering that some of these restaurants are very high end, it is a great way to get a good taste of them without breaking the bank. Happy dining!


Saturday, January 17, 2009

Thai Peanut Sauce

Inspired by Court's last post, here is a sauce adapted from Michael Smith's Chef at Home Easy Thai Dinner episode. The chile and lime give the peanut sauce extra depth of flavour, and it keeps in your fridge for several months so it's a great staple to have on hand.

Thai Peanut Sauce:
1 cup peanut butter
juice & zest of 1-2 limes
half of a minced & deseeded thai bird's eye chili
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup soy sauce

Put everything in the food processor and whizz together. Like this, you can jar it and keep it in the refrigerator. If you want to thin it out a bit when using it, just heat it up on a low heat and combine 2 parts sauce with 1 part milk or coconut milk. This gives a creamy sauce that makes a great dip for appetizers.

Bird's eye chiles are about 3-5cm long and very narrow and pointy. You can always find them at asian grocery stores, but the bigger chains often have them as well. If you can't find any, you can substitute a 1/2 tsp of dried chile flakes or hot sauce. I used natural peanut butter, so the sauce thicker, oilier, and less sweet than it would be if you use regular peanut butter. You may want to reduce the amount of sugar if the peanut butter you use is already sweetened.


Friday, January 16, 2009

Thai Mekong (St. Albert) Yum!

I am loving Thai Food lately, but I know so little about it. Since that is the case, my favorite is to have it with lots of people so that I can try many dishes. We had some friends and family over one evening recently, and my wish came true.

Oh picking the dishes took some time (and some bossiness on my part), but in the end we got spring rolls, tom yum soup, pad thai with shrimp, a pork and a chicken pad cashew, sweet and sour pork, gaeng matsamun (a curry) with beef, and a whole wack of coconut rice.

As I often do in a buffet type situation, I ate until it hurt.... hurt bad, but that's a good sign. I started with a spring roll, and it was a bit disappointing, but it was not indicative of how the rest would taste. Although I can't get asian food without having spring rolls, I am very picky about them. The tom yum was much better as a starter.

The pad cashew was the highlight for me. It was the perfect mix of sticky and sweet that I look for in take out. I soak the coconut rice in the extra sauce just so that everything will taste more like it. The sweet and sour was also good, but just got eclipsed by the pad cashew. If you are more of a sweet and sour fan it might be the opposite for you. I do like the pineapple chunks.

The gaeng matsamun was delicious, but it separated in transit. I think that in the restaurant it would be magnificent, but the oil on top of the takeout package detracted from it a bit. It wasn't a traditional thai curry as I generally think about it. It wasn't green or red curry, it was a very mild and comforting dish that had a sweetness that had a bit of a cinnamon flavor. It wasn't terribly coconuty, but it was filled with beef, potato and peanuts. I would highly recommend it if you are eating in, but it doesn't work as well for take out.

The pad thai and coconut rice were the perfect accompaniments. I frequently get pad thai from Thai Mekong for dinner because I just love it. I never stop for burgers or fried chicken on the way home, but pad thai is my take out weakness. I judge all other pad thais by this one.

I am so happy that Thai Mekong opened up out in St. Albert. After moving out of down town, I really missed having ethnic food readily available. It is everything I could want in a take out restaurant, and every once in a while I will even get my butt off my couch and eat at the restaurant.


Thursday, January 15, 2009

Earl Grey Smoked Duck

I had been thinking about doing a tea-smoked duck breast for a few years now, and finally worked up the courage to try it. Once I got started, I realized it is a lot easier than it sounds. Most of my hesitation came from the fact that I had never tried smoked meat and therefore was not sure what it was supposed to taste like... although really, what does that matter as long as it tastes good to me? Also, there was the worry that I would smoke out the condo and trip the fire alarm (not an unfounded fear, as my fire alarm goes off at the drop of a hat). In truth, there were absolutely no problems with this; happily, the smoke stayed entirely contained in the steamer leaving me with a deliciously fragrant and tender - and perfectly cooked - duck breast which I served with my version of the 4th and Vine salad.

Earl Grey Smoked Duck Breast:
2 duck breasts
4 tbsp earl grey tea leaves
4 tbsp long grain rice
4 tbsp brown sugar
star anise (optional)Score the fat on the duck breasts and rub it with salt - this will help the fat get crispy later. I find the thickness of fat on a duck breast a bit much if it hasn't had a chance to get crispy. Next, line the bottom of a wok with 2 layers of tin foil. Mix together the tea leaves, rice, brown sugar, and star anise and add to the wok. This amount should do 1-2 breasts (or possibly 3); if you're making more, just increase each ingredient in the smoke mixture in an even ratio.

Place the duck in a bamboo steamer or on a trivet in the wok & tightly cover with foil. I put a layer of foil over the duck before covering it with the steamer lid to ensure it was almost air-tight. The foil at the bottom should also be tight around the base of the steamer.

Over medium to medium-low heat smoke the duck for 12 minutes - this basically just means turn the heat on; as soon as the wok heats up the dry mixture will start smoking. Next, remove the wok from the heat and let it sit 5 minutes still covered, then place the duck fat-side down in a fry pan over medium heat for 5 minutes to crisp up the fat. When that is done, remove the duck breasts and set aside to rest for 5 minutes. With the large salad I had, 1 breast was enough for 2 servings.


Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Apple Pork Chops

I work normal working hours, and my husband works shift work, so our schedules differ pretty significantly. In the interest of eating well, and not having cereal for supper except in the rare dire dinner emergency (like two straight weeks of -30 weather keeping us from the store), I have enacted a cooking rule. My rule is basically that if one of us is working, and the other has the day off, the day off person is in charge of making dinner. Now, if we are both working or neither of us is working, I am generally still in charge, but I do feel that if I am working all day and someone else isn't, it wouldn't kill them to see that I get to come home to a hot meal on the table. The thing is that my husband is actually a very good cook, it's just that he only chooses to use his talent a couple times a month. It's all very go hard or go home. This week he decided to make me one of his favourite recipes: Apple Pork Chops. It is based on the recipe "Old-School Pork Chops with Apple and Sage" from the Cook with Jamie cookbook (since he will only make food endorsed by Jamie Oliver), but with changes based on what we had stocked in the pantry. Many people are put off by pork chops, thinking that they have to be cooked until they are all dried out to be safe, but with meat being as it is today, you can actually cook them less, and discover that pork chops can be juicy and delicious!

Old-School Pork Chops with Apple:
Four 9-ounce pork chops
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
olive oil
2 good eating apples (e.g. McIntosh or Cox), cored and each cut into 8 wedges
knob of butter (a couple of tablespoons)
sprinkling of cinnamon
thyme leaves (optional)

Preheat the oven to 400°F/200
°C. Lay the pork chops out on a board and, using a sharp knife, make 1-inch-deep cuts all along the fatty side of them. This is the key to these delicious chops as it helps to render the fat out and will also make the skin crispy. Sprinkle the chops with salt and pepper.

Pour the olive oil into a hot frying pan. Carefully place your chops in it and cook them for 2 to 3 minutes each side on high until golden brown. If you need to, open out the little pieces of fat along the edge so they don't stick together.

When the chops are nearly done, lift them out of the pan and put them in an oiled baking pan. Add the apple wedges and a knob of butter to the frying pan and fry until lightly golden. Sprinkle with cinnamon. Lay 4 wedges of apple on top of each pork chop. If I have some thyme from the garden or in my freezer, I will sprinkle some leaves on each one.

Put the baking pan into the oven for 4 to 6 minutes until everything is golden and melted.

Eating pork dressed with such sweet flavors is amazing. I find that more and more people are shying away from pork, but I am in the opposite boat, where the more ways I learn to cook it and keep it moist and a bit fatty, the more I appreciate it as a meat. I am hoping to see pork regain some popularity this year as people go back to more budget friendly comfort foods. I like to pair this dish with a side that is a bit tangy, like Jamie's french green bean salad, which I hope to post the next time we make it.


Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Chinese Cabbage & Bacon Soup

Because I like to try new things all the time, I often end up buying ingredients I don't normally use and am then stuck with no ideas on how to use up the leftovers - and I hate wasting food. This happened recently when I bought a chinese cabbage and found half of it sitting in my refrigerator for a week. I've really been on a soup kick this winter (probably because it's freeeezing), and this soup is particularly quick and easy to make. It is also delicious - but how could it not be when there is bacon involved?

Chinese Cabbage & Bacon Soup:
6 slices bacon, ~ 150g
1/2 chinese cabbage, sliced lengthways
2 cm ginger, peeled & grated
100 ml sake
300 ml water or dashi
2 tbsp soy sauce
1/2 tbsp rice wine vinegar

Take the cabbage and arrange the bacon in layers through the leaves, leaving pats of ginger with each strip of bacon. Tie it together with string and place in a medium saucepan, then add the sake and water (the liquid will seem low, but it is fine). Bring to the boil over medium-low heat, and simmer for 30 minutes. Next, add the soy sauce and rice vinegar and keep warm. Remove the cabbage and cut it into bite-sized pieces. Put the cabbage & bacon into serving bowls and pour the soup on top, then garnish with green onion or leek. I served this with rice so that it was filling enough for dinner.


Monday, January 12, 2009

Shrimp Blossoms - New Best Appie

Looking at Tastespotting before the holidays, I saw this recipe and photos posted by Once Upon a Plate. It looked good, sounded easy, and I had most of the stuff needed to make it on hand, so when I had the fam over for dinner the other night, these started off the festivities. I literally thought a fight might break out over who got how many of these, they are creamy and delicious! I deviated ever so slightly with the quantities (due to not having quite enough), but mostly held to the recipe.

Wonton Shrimp Blossoms:
24 square wonton skins/wraps
10 ounces peeled, cooked shrimp, finely chopped
2 green onions/scallions, finely chopped
1/3 cup carrot, finely grated
4 ounces cream cheese, softened
1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon salt
Small pinch cayenne pepper, or dash of Tabasco sauce
1 cup shredded Mozzarella cheese

Preheat oven to 350 F. Spray mini muffin pan with cooking spray. Gently press wanton wrappers into muffin cups, and spray again. Bake 8 minutes or until brown and crisp. Remove from oven and cool.

Meanwhile, combine remaining ingredients, mixing well.

Fill each baked wonton cup with some of the shrimp mixture. Place filled cups on a baking sheet as you fill them, then bake 5 to 6 minutes, or until filling is hot and bubbling around edges. I went a little longer than this to make sure everything was hot.

This one will definitely be stocked in my freezer going forward.


Sunday, January 11, 2009

Chèvre, Berries & Sun Dried Tomato Salad

I was really craving the Duck Salad from 4th and Vine yesterday, and as luck would have it I had everything (I think) that I needed in my fridge. I can't claim that this is exactly the same, but it was certainly pretty close. The absolute best part about this salad is the way the majority of the toppings are hidden inside, though I suppose it's less of a surprise when I place it there myself. It looks like a small side salad, but it is packed with goodness! Served with Earl Grey Smoked Duck, it was almost as good as the real thing.

4th & Vine Salad:
salad greens or spinach
pecans or walnuts

sun dried tomatoes
oil from sun dried tomatoes
(or olive oil)
balsamic vinegar

I didn't really make measurements on the dressing, just whizzed them in the food processor and added a little sugar to take the edge off the vinegar. If I had to guess, I'd say maybe 1 1/2 tablespoons of sun dried tomatoes, 1 tablespoon of oil, and a couple of teaspoons vinegar - I just kept adding a little of each until it was to my preference. This is a very strong dressing, and a little goes a long way. I tossed the greens in a few teaspoons of the dressing, then added the toppings.

Next time, I think I will spring for the dried blueberries that were in the salad when we went, as they were sweeter than my blackberries. Though that could just be because they're out of season!


Saturday, January 10, 2009

Homemade Gnocchi

As is often the case, when my husband was working nights this week, I decided to have some girlfriends over for dinner. One of the invitees is a vegetarian, so I had to break from my usual meat eating ways. As a main, I decided to try out gnocchi, since I had never made it before but had always wanted to. I served it with mushroom and black bean pinwheels as a side/starter. The girls arrived early and were nice enough to help out to move things along. The result was light and fluffy gnocchi!

3 large baking potatoes (about 1 3/4 pounds), peeled
1 egg
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
Pinch of nutmeg
1/4 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
2 cups all-purpose flour, or as needed

Boil the potatoes in a large pot for about 35 mins. Drain them, and as soon as they are cool enough to hold, either rice them with a potato ricer or, as we did, grate them with the small grater plane that comes standard with the Ikea grater set. The warmer they are when you do this, the lighter the gnocchi will be. Spread them out on your work surface without pressing the potato together. Let them cool completely.

In a bowl, beat the egg, salt, pepper, and nutmeg together. Gather the cold potatoes into a mound and form a well in the center. Pour the egg mixture into the well. Knead the potato and egg mixtures together, gradually adding the grated cheese and enough of the flour, about 1 1/2 cups, to form a smooth but slightly sticky dough. It should take no longer than 3 minutes to work the flour into the potato mixture; the longer the dough is kneaded, the more flour it will require and the heavier it will become. Repeatedly rub the rough dough from your hands and scrape it with a knife or dough scraper from the work surface back into the dough as you knead.

Wash and dry your hands. Dust the dough, your hands, and the work surface with some of the remaining flour. Cut the dough into six equal pieces and set off to one side of the work surface. Place one piece of dough in front of you and pat it into a rough oval shape. Using both hands, roll the dough into a rope 1/2 inch thick, flouring the dough if necessary as you roll to keep it from sticking.

Slice the ropes into 1/2-inch-thick rounds. Sprinkle the rounds lightly with flour and roll each piece quickly between your palms into a rough ball. Use a fork to imprint one side of the ball. I was lucky that there were three of us, as I made the ropes and the other two had fun shaping the gnocchi. At this point the gnocchi must be cooked immediately or frozen.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a vigorous boil over high heat. Drop about half the gnocchi into the boiling water a few at a time, stirring gently and continuously with a wooden spoon. Cook the gnocchi, stirring gently, until tender, about 1 minute after they rise to the surface.

Remove the gnocchi from the water with a slotted spoon or skimmer, draining them well, and transfer to a wide saucepan with some of the sauce to be used. Cook the remaining gnocchi, if necessary. When all the gnocchi are cooked, proceed according to the directions for saucing and serving in each recipe.

To freeze gnocchi:
It is best to freeze gnocchi uncooked. Arrange the gnocchi in a single layer of wax paper on a baking pan and place in the freezer. Freeze until solid, about 3 hours. Gather the frozen gnocchi into resealable freezer bags. Frozen gnocchi can be stored in the freezer for 4 to 6 weeks.

To cook frozen gnocchi:
Frozen gnocchi must be cooked directly from the freezer in plenty of boiling water, or they will stick together. It is important that the water return to a boil as soon as possible.

I served mine with pesto and goat cheese, and it was very tasty and filling. The recipe above made enough for 6-8 people, so I sent each of the girls home with some of the frozen stuff to thank them for their help. The frozen stuff was a bit gooey when it was cooked, definitely not as good as fresh. It was nice comfort food for a cold winter evening of girl talk.


Friday, January 9, 2009

The Free Press Bistro

I prefer to avoid chain restaurants if possible in favour of independently owned locations, and The Free Press Bistro is one of my favourites. It's located just south of Jasper Avenue on 104th St, so it is usually packed at lunch as it's relatively small. There is also outside dining available during the summer, which is quite nice as it is situated next to a small park.

While they offer a good selection of appetizers, salads, and entrees, what they do best is sandwiches. With over 20 types of panini, selection is definitely not limited, and at $11-$14 they are reasonably priced as well. The panini are large enough with the side that I usually end up bringing half home for my lunch the next day - extra value! The best part is that in addition to the standard choices, they have quite a few new interesting combinations. I'm still trying to work my way through all of the ones on the menu that have peaked my interest; so far my favourites have been The Cuban and the Thai Chicken. They're both so good I have a hard time convincing myself to try out something different.

I've managed to avoid the lunch rush so far as I have only been there for dinner, so I'm not sure what the service is like when it's busy. Later in the day there is only one server, but usually only a few tables are filled so the service remains prompt.

Definitely a place to check out!


Thursday, January 8, 2009

Ninja Lasagna

Cooking for two brothers while growing up who both tended to avoid most vegetables led me to get a bit sneaky. Lasagna (and spaghetti) has such strong flavours that it is quite easy to mask most vegetables in it. Getting a food processor made this even easier - because if you can't see it it must not be there. What mushrooms?

I'm in budget-mode after the holidays, so I really skimped on the cheese and I also used a 50/50 mixture of pork and beef to keep costs down.

Ninja Lasagna:
250 g ground pork
250 g ground beef
1/2 large onion
3+ cloves garlic
800 ml tomato sauce
1 chopped tomato
2-3 medium carrots
1/2 small zucchini
1/2 small red pepper
handful of broccoli florets
handful of cauliflower florets
10 button mushrooms
1 1/2 tbsp dried basil
2 bay leaves
salt & pepper
~12-15 lasagna sheets
250 ml cottage cheese
350 g mozzarella, shredded

In a large saucepan brown the pork and beef with the onion and garlic. Drain the majority of fat and add the tomato sauce and tomato. Puree the vegetables in a food processor and add to the pan. (Alternately, you could just finely chop the vegetables if your family is less picky than mine.) Add the basil, bay leaves, and salt & pepper and bring to a simmer over low heat; simmer for 2 hours uncovered.

This time I accidentally bought no-cook lasagna sheets, so it was even less work although I don't prefer them. It's best to lay out the sheets before you cook them to guesstimate how many you'll need for your dish - mine took around 12 for 3 layers of pasta. Lay out the layers in the following order: pasta, sauce, cottage cheese, mozzarella. Cover with foil and bake in a 375F/190C oven for 30 minutes, then remove the foil and bake for another 10-15 minutes.

Once cool I divide
d it into 9 portions and froze 8 of them. A better idea for freezing would be to arrange the layers in individual portions and freeze before cooking, as then you'd be able to cook each portion as you wanted it instead of just reheating it. Next time I'll read my packages more carefully, as having the no-cook sheets prevented this (simply due to the shape of my containers).


Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Mushroom Black Bean Pinwheels

The other day I was on Tastespotting, and The Review Lady had posted a picture of a black bean and mushroom pinwheel, but did not have the recipe. Well, it looked delicious, so I added it to my list of favourites, vowing to invent something based on the picture in the near future. Well, when I was making a vegetarian meal when a couple of friends came over, I thought "black beans, that would add some substance," and it was ON. I am 100% sure this did not taste like the inspiration pinwheel, but it was delicious!

1/2 package puff pastry (one of the two Tenderflake squares)
1 tsp olive oil
10 mushrooms
1/2 can black beans
1/4 cup grated parmesan
1 tsp cumin

As per the pastry instructions, defrost and roll out the puff pastry. Saute the mushrooms in oil, and as they are finished, sprinkle in the cumin. Drain and rinse the black beans, and smush them with your hands as you add them in. Mix everything together, and spread evenly over the surface of the pastry. Sprinkle the parmesan over evenly as well.

Gently roll the pastry into a tube shape. Try not to loose the filling. Cut it into even sections about 1 1/2 to 2 inches thick.

Spray a backing sheet with cooking spray (to avoid pastry sticking), and place each roll with a flat side on the sheet. If you have some extra parmesan, you may want to sprinkle a bit on top.

Back at 375 F for about 20 - 30 minutes (until golden brown) and then serve. When I made this for the girls, it went over very well, but when i made it for my husband he said it tasted a bit like a Taco Bell burrito. He seems to think that anything made with cumin does, but what does he know?

I made them as full sized appetizers, but if you cut the dough in half so that the wheels are smaller, they would make a tasty finger food.